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The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World

by Aliya Whiteley

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442556,241 (4.1)1
"Fungi can appear anywhere, from desert dunes to frozen tundra. They can invade our bodies and live between our toes or our floorboards. They are unwelcome intruders or vastly expensive treats, and symbols of both death and eternal life. But despite their familiar presence, there's still much to learn about the eruption, growth, and decay of their secret, interconnected, world"--… (more)

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Fungi, Herbs, and Human Connections

The fascinating world of fungi and herbs is the topic of several new works of nonfiction. From updates in mycology to the traditions of ginseng gathering, these titles explore an often overlooked area of science and agriculture.

The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries From a Hidden World
Aliya Whiteley, Sep 2021, Pegasus Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Themes: Science, Life sciences, Nature, Mycology

THE SECRET LIFE OF FUNGI shares the joys of nature, mushrooms, and mycology. Whether detailing medicinal uses of mushrooms or describing microfungus that eat plastic, each short essay begins with a drawing followed by an engaging story filled with humor and relatable anecdotes.

Take-aways: Both teen readers and educators will connect with the author’s passion for her subject. Making the science fun and the facts friendly, science teachers will find many timely examples of fungi in agriculture, medicine, and other allied fields. ( )
  eduscapes | Mar 8, 2022 |
As if there weren’t enough to worry about, it turns out there is a whole other class of beings on Earth – fungi. They are not plants, they are not animals. They are not viruses. But they are involved with all those things. Aliya Whitely is a big, if hesitant fan of fungi. Her book, The Secret Life of Fungi is a fun read, which means it is fast moving, top line only, wide-ranging, but informative. From science to childhood reminiscences and history (mostly plagues and death), she skims the fungi universe with evident passion in 30 quick chapters.

Mushrooms are notorious for being toxic. Whitely is justifiably afraid to try them on her own, despite her research and her knowledge. Or rather, because of her research and her knowledge. Better to just admire them. But that only addresses consumption. Breathing in spores, or insects and vermin carrying them can lead to all kinds of horrific diseases and death. Loving fungi is complicated.

They spread by unleashing clouds of all but invisible spores, some of which land where it can do the fungus some good – ie. reproduce. It might be on the back of ant, on a leaf, or on the ground. Every strategy is different.

Mushrooms are not the fungus plant. They are the fruit produced by the fungus. They can be firm or slimy, huge puffballs or a mess of goo, or combinations thereof. Rare ones, like truffles, can go for a thousand euros a kilogram. People train dogs for years to be able to sniff them out. Pigs used to be the go-to sniffer, but they like to eat the merchandise. Dogs are simply happy with the game.

What readers might not know is how adaptable and hardy fungi really are. Some of them can exist without oxygen or gravity, in outer space. They turned up all over the Mir space station before it was abandoned, and since the International Space Station has taken them onboard for experiments, it will be essentially impossible to get rid of them. Their spores go everywhere, and get into everything, in living bodies and especially in dead and decaying things. But also non-organic materials, like rocks and window panes. It seems they are the most adaptable beings on Earth.

Fungi are specialized to be attracted to and accelerate decay. They help clean up the world, and have been doing so for countless eons. They are not, despite legend, confined to dark and damp places. They live on every continent, including Antarctica, and also underground, in complete darkness. Their underground connections, called hyphae, can extend for miles.
Whitely only touches briefly on my favorite aspect of fungi. They are a network, specifically an underground communications cable linking all manner of plants. Fungal hyphae are incredibly long strings underground that allow fungus and lichens to appear in and on everything, from trees to rocks and everything in between. But more interestingly, those hyphae are a communications carrier. They enable trees to communicate their status to each other. The forest is alive with underground chatter we have only just discovered. Trees will alter root growth, or send additional resources to areas according to communications passed along this network. They might be parched, or under attack. They might need to fight off a beetle infestations, which is a warning to all.

Some beetles either leverage or unwittingly spread fungi under bark, usually not to the advantage of the tree. Think Dutch Elm Disease, which is on the verge of wiping out the entire species globally.

This business of network communications is very much like the universe: the scale is astounding. Just as the universe, composed of trillions of suns usually bigger than ours, is also composed of subatomic particles that act as if they were in their own little universe, so with earthbound communications networks. While we are busy bouncing data around the globe to share cat videos and hate postings, the human body is a universe of networks inside itself. It is a loud, chattering din of communications along neural pathways, as everything is constantly reporting its status. Every muscle, every organ, every cell reports. Sometimes just locally, sometimes right to the brain. Change in status sends the brain into action, causing flight or fight instincts to activate, inflammation to seal off an injured area, T cells to fight invaders, and so on.

This model is becoming seemingly common to life in general. It turns out the whole forest is linked by a similar communications system, provided by fungi. Trees are active participants, guarding their own health and co-operating within the forest community. The humble mushroom is at the center of critical communications systems. It’s a whole new discipline, emerging right now.
(For my review on this subject, see The Secret Language of Cells at https://medium.com/the-straight-dope/how-the-body-communicates-to-itself-988c759... .)

Fungi are also employed right in our homes. They run the fermentation process. They provide yeasts. As Whitely says: “The sourdough starter must be the only fungus that gets treated like a pet.” Remarkable range, worth considering more often and more deeply. This is a good start.

David Wineberg ( )
1 vote DavidWineberg | Jun 29, 2021 |
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"Fungi can appear anywhere, from desert dunes to frozen tundra. They can invade our bodies and live between our toes or our floorboards. They are unwelcome intruders or vastly expensive treats, and symbols of both death and eternal life. But despite their familiar presence, there's still much to learn about the eruption, growth, and decay of their secret, interconnected, world"--

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