Entangled Life

Title: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Author: Merlin Sheldrake

Completed: Feb 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: In college, my partner took a mycology course. One evening I arrived home to hear, “Quick, jump under the covers with me. I want to show you something.” I was somewhat disappointed to learn the thing I was being shown was a fungus that glows in the dark and under the covers was the only place in our apartment that was dark enough to see the glow. This book contained a lot of similarly nerdy fascination with all aspects of the fungi world from fermentation to composting cigarette butts to breaking down nuclear waste to planning subway lines. Since that memorable evening under the covers, I’ve grown to appreciate fungi much more and thoroughly enjoyed learning about what they are capable of doing. This was an fun read… but I’d still be disappointed if my surprise is a glowing fungus.

Highlights:

  • A number of these radio-tolerant species even grow toward radioactive “hot” particles, and appear to be able to harness radiation as a source of energy, as plants use the energy in sunlight.
  • Other species of fungi create their own microclimates: Spores are carried upward by a current of wind generated by mushrooms as water evaporates from their gills.
  • In 2017, researchers reconstructed the diets of Neanderthals, cousins of modern humans who went extinct approximately fifty thousand years ago. They found that an individual with a dental abscess had been eating a type of fungus—a penicillin-producing mold—implying knowledge of its antibiotic properties.
  • Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch.
  • Someone got up to talk about a group of plants that produced a certain group of chemicals in their leaves. Until then, the chemicals had been thought of as a defining characteristic of that group of plants. However, it transpired that the chemicals were actually made by fungi that lived in the leaves of the plant. Our idea of the plant had to be redrawn. Another researcher interjected, suggesting that it may not be the fungi living inside the leaf that produced these chemicals but the bacteria living inside the fungus.
  • THE HUMAN SENSE of smell is extraordinary. Our eyes can distinguish several million colors, our ears can distinguish half a million tones, but our noses can distinguish well over a trillion different odors. Humans can detect virtually all volatile chemicals ever tested. We outperform rodents and dogs in detecting certain odors, and we can follow scent trails.
  • Some fungi have tens of thousands of mating types, approximately equivalent to our sexes (the record holder is the split gill fungus, Schizophyllum commune, which has more than twenty-three thousand mating types, each of which is sexually compatible with nearly every one of the others).
  • The methods fungi use to hunt nematodes are grisly and diverse. It is a habit that has evolved multiple times—many fungal lineages have reached a similar conclusion but in different ways. Some fungi grow adhesive nets, or branches to which nematodes stick. Some use mechanical means, producing hyphal nooses that inflate in a tenth of a second when touched, ensnaring their prey. Some—including the commonly cultivated oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)—produce hyphal stalks capped with a single toxic droplet that paralyzes nematodes, giving the hypha enough time to grow through their mouth and digest the worm from the inside. Others produce spores that can swim through the soil, chemically drawn toward nematodes, to which they bind. Once attached, the spores sprout and the fungus harpoons the worm with specialized hyphae known as “gun cells.”
  • When hyphae felt together to make mushrooms, they rapidly inflate with water, which they must absorb from their surroundings—the reason why mushrooms tend to appear after rain. Mushroom growth can generate an explosive force. When a stinkhorn mushroom crunches through an asphalt road, it produces enough force to lift an object weighing 130 kilograms.
  • Hyphae can also sense the texture of surfaces; one study reports that young hyphae of the bean rust fungus can detect grooves half a micrometer deep in artificial surfaces, three times shallower than the gap between the laser tracks on a CD.
  • If the head of a flatworm is cut off, it sprouts another head, brain and all. Flatworms can also be trained. The researchers wondered whether, if they trained a flatworm to remember features of its environment and then cut off its head, it would retain the memory when it has grown a new head and brain. Remarkably, the answer is yes.
  • The ‘basic set’ of partners is different for every lichen group. Some have more bacteria, some fewer; some have one yeast species, some have two, or none. Interestingly, we have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga.”
  • it is no longer possible to conceive of any organism—humans included—as distinct from the microbial communities they share a body with. The biological identity of most organisms can’t be pried apart from the life of their microbial symbionts.
  • Evidence of religion, complex social organization, commerce, and the earliest art arises within a relatively short period in human history around fifty to seventy thousand years ago. What triggered these developments is not known. Some scholars attribute them to the invention of complex language. Others hypothesize that genetic mutations brought about changes in brain structure. For McKenna, it was psilocybin mushrooms that had ignited the first flickerings of human self-reflection, language, and spirituality, somewhere in the proto-cultural fog of the Paleolithic. Mushrooms were the original tree of knowledge.
  • OPHIOCORDYCEPS AND OTHER insect-manipulating fungi have evolved a remarkable ability to cause harm to the animals they influence. Psilocybin mushrooms, as a growing number of studies report, have evolved an astonishing ability to cure a wide range of human problems.
  • In one study, researchers found that a single high dose of psilocybin increased the openness to new experiences, psychological well-being, and life satisfaction of healthy volunteers, a change that persisted in most cases for more than a year. Some studies have found that experiences with psilocybin have helped smokers or alcoholics break their addictions. Other studies have reported enduring increases in subjects’ sense of connection with the natural world.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi are so prolific that their mycelium makes up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. The numbers are astronomical. Globally, the total length of mycorrhizal hyphae in the top ten centimeters of soil is around half the width of our galaxy (4.5 × 1017 kilometers of hyphae, versus 9.5 × 1017 kilometers of space).
  • Most surprising was the way that the fungus coordinated its trading behavior across the network. Kiers identified a strategy of “buy low, sell high.” The fungus actively transported phosphorus—using its dynamic microtubule “motors”—from areas of abundance, where it fetched a low price when exchanged with a plant root, to areas of scarcity, where it was in higher demand and fetched a higher price. By doing so, the fungus was able to transfer a greater proportion of its phosphorus to the plant at the more favorable exchange rate, thus receiving larger quantities of carbon in return.
  • The fungi that live in plant leaves and shoots—known as “endophytes”—can have similarly dramatic effects on a plant’s ability to make a life in a new place. Take a grass from salty coastal soils, grow it without its fungal endophytes, and it won’t be able to survive in its natural salty habitat. The same goes for grasses growing in hot geothermal soils. Researchers swapped the fungal endophytes that lived in each type of grass so that coastal grasses were grown with hot geothermal fungi and vice versa. The grasses’ ability to survive in each habitat switched. Coastal grasses could no longer grow in salty coastal soils but thrived in hot geothermal soils. Hot geothermal grasses could no longer grow in the hot geothermal soils but thrived in the salty coastal soils.
  • One species of mycorrhizal fungus, the thick-footed morel (Morchella crassipes), actually farms the bacteria that live within its networks: The fungus “plants” bacterial populations, then cultivates, harvests, and consumes them. There is a division of labor across the network, with some parts of the fungus responsible for food production and some for consumption.
  • Plants that were connected to the aphid-infested plant via a shared fungal network ramped up their production of volatile defense compounds, even though they had not encountered the aphids themselves. The plumes of volatile compounds produced by the plants were large enough to attract the parasitic wasps, suggesting that information passing between the plants through the fungal channel could make a difference in a real-world setting.
  • Eliminate Google and Amazon and Facebook overnight or shut down the three busiest airports in the world, and you’ll cause havoc. Selectively remove large hub trees—as many commercial logging operations do in an effort to extract the most valuable timber—and serious disruption will ensue.
  • In Mexico City, used diapers make up between five and fifteen percent by weight of solid waste. Researchers have found that the omnivorous Pleurotus mycelium—a white rot fungus that fruits into edible oyster mushrooms—can grow happily on a diet of used diapers. Over the course of two months, diapers introduced to Pleurotus lost about eighty-five percent of their starting mass when the plastic covering was removed, compared with a mere five percent in fungus-free controls.
  • A material made from the outer layers of portabello mushrooms shows promise in replacing graphite in lithium batteries. The mycelium of some species makes an effective skin substitute, used by surgeons to help wounds to heal. And in the United States, a company called Ecovative Design is growing building materials out of mycelium.
  • alcohol was part of nature if the honey had fermented “by itself,” and part of culture if humans had placed the honey to ferment in an artificially hollowed-out trunk. (It is an interesting distinction; by extension, Macrotermes termites and leaf-cutter ants made the transition from nature to culture tens of millions of years before humans.)
  • The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin pointed out that it is impossible to “do the work of science” without using metaphors, given that almost “the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly by human beings.” Metaphors and analogies, in turn, come laced with human stories and values, meaning that no discussion of scientific ideas—this one included—can be free of cultural bias.
  • Why would the ability to metabolize alcohol arise so many millions of years before humans developed technologies of fermentation? Researchers point out that ADH4 upgraded at a time when our primate ancestors were spending less time in trees and adapting to life on the ground. The ability to metabolize alcohol, they speculate, played a crucial role in the ability of primates to make a living on the forest floor by opening up a new dietary niche: overripe, fermented fruit that had fallen from trees.
  • the “drunken monkey hypothesis,” proposed by the biologist Robert Dudley to explain the origins of humans’ fondness for alcohol. In this view, humans are tempted by alcohol because our primate ancestors were. The scent of alcohol produced by yeasts was a reliable way to find ripe fruit as it rotted on the ground. Both our human attraction to alcohol and the entire ecology of gods and goddesses that oversee fermentation and intoxication are remnants of a much more ancient fascination.
  • in a suburb of Cambridge. Residents’ apple trees overhanging the road were dropping their fruit into the street. Local youngsters used them as missiles. Windows had been broken and cars dented. In an inspired political gambit, a residents’ association had provided a community apple press to manage the problem and reduce waste. It appeared to have worked. Community violence was pressed into juice. Juice was fermented into cider. Cider was drunk into community spirit.
  • I later discovered that we were “scrumping”—a dialect word of West Country provenance, originally used to describe the collection of windfalls, and later, the taking of fruit without permission.
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