The Sunday Magazine

Inside the strange and world-changing kingdom of fungi

Even though fungi are largely hidden from view, they sustain almost all the living systems around us. They also challenge how we think and what we know. Guest host Kevin Sylvester speaks with Merlin Sheldrake, the author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures to learn more.

Biologist Merlin Sheldrake on how fungi shape our world

Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and a writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology, ecology, and the history and philosophy of science. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures is his first book. (DRK Videography and Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz)

For most of us, the word fungus likely brings to mind mushrooms on a plate, mould in the shower, or maybe an unwelcome sight on our toenails.

Few of us appreciate just how strange, magical and even life-changing fungi actually are. Without them, life as we know it on planet Earth would simply not exist. 

Not only do they shape our world, fungi also challenge how we think and what we know. They defy familiar logic and categories, and stretch the limits of our scientific and philosophical imaginations. 

Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and the author of a new book called Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures.

Below are excerpts from his conversation with The Sunday Edition's guest host Kevin Sylvester. His comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.

What drew you to fungi in the first place?

When I was small, I was really fascinated by how things transform. How do rotting logs become soil? How do piles of leaves shrink and vanish into the ground over time? My inquiries led me back again and again to fungi as these great decomposers.

This really blew my mind — that we live and breathe in the space that decomposition leaves behind. And I've always wanted to find out more about these organisms that were so small and so invisible — and yet so ubiquitous and so world-making and world-changing.

I've always wanted to find out more about these organisms that were so small and so invisible — and yet so ubiquitous and so world-making and world-changing.- Merlin Sheldrake

When we think of fungi, a lot of us think of what we can see: mushrooms, mould, yeast. But when we talk about a fungal network, what's actually going on?

Mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of fungi, the place where spores are produced. But most fungi live most of their lives as — what we call — mycelium or mycelial networks, which are sprawling, branching, fusing networks of tubular cells. The largest mycelial network is in Oregon and spills out over 10 square kilometres or so.

Mycelial networks spend most of their lives buried, entombed within their source of food. Fungi don't do as we do and put food in their bodies. They do the opposite — they put their bodies in their food. Because of that, they're always buried and tend to be out of our sight.

The best estimates suggest that we've described only about six per cent of the fungal species on the planet. The total number of fungal species is estimated to be between 2.2 and 3.8 million. So it's a vast and diverse kingdom of life, and we're only just beginning to scratch the surface.

There's this whole subculture of people doing DIY mycology, wild mushroom foraging, or people who pay thousands of dollars to train dogs to hunt for truffles. What is the allure for humanity to mycology? 

In the case of truffles and many mushrooms like matsutake, which also inspire a feverish passion in humans, it's because these fungi produce mushrooms which produce delicious smells and tastes. This is no accident. Truffles have evolved to be irresistible to animals, because that's how they spread their spores. So you can think of it as us playing our part in an evolutionary story.

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus) drawn using ink from ink cap mushrooms. One of the many illustrations from Collin Elder in Merlin Sheldrake's book, Entangled Life. (Collin Elder)

But in other cases, a part of it is that their lives are so strange and peculiar. The more you start to find out about them — that they're often working behind the scenes, responsible for so much and spinning these vast biogeochemical cycles, decomposing, living inside the bodies of animals and plants, producing medicines, digesting rock, founding ecosystems — it's like a gauze falls away. And you see the world in a way that you hadn't seen before. That inspires quite a lot of passion in people.

Fungi trick us out of our preconceptions. They lure us into these unusual places and everything can start to seem a little bit stranger when you start thinking about them — because you are actually noticing the strangeness of life and of these ecosystems. You see the peculiar way that all these organisms interact with each other and have been doing so for so much of the history of the planet.

Fungi trick us out of our preconceptions. They lure us into these unusual places.- Merlin Sheldrake

We're starting to also talk about how fungi can maybe help change the world. Tell us a little bit about Paul Stamets, the American mycologist who lives in Canada now. What does he think about the power of fungi?

Paul has a TED talk called "Six Ways that Mushrooms Can Help Save the World." I call him a myco-evangelist. He would say that you can use fungi to get us out of so many of our pressing problems. His latest finding is that certain extracts from fungi have antiviral properties. They can help bees overcome a colony collapse disorder — one of the big pressing problems that we face.

There are other ways, too. Mycoremediation is the term given to the process where we use fungi to help us break down or detoxify polluted sites or polluting materials — to be agents of environmental clear-up. 

There's also micro-fabrication, which is using fungi to build new materials. You can make packaging materials — for example, that disrupt the plastic industry — out of mycelium.

You also talk about Peter McCoy, who started the Radical Mycology movement. He trained fungi to eat cigarette butts, right?

That's exactly what he did. Used cigarette butts contain these toxins which are poisonous. But if you introduce certain types of fungi to cigarette butts while they still have another food source, they get used to them and they can also digest their other food source. You gradually ratchet up the proportion of used cigarette butts until, in the end, they're living just on used cigarette butts — and they have worked out how to digest these toxins as an energy source. So they can thrive in this very unpromising material.

You have done a number of experiments with fungi, but one of the most interesting involves your own book manuscript. Tell us about that.

I wanted to make sure that I couldn't forget that I was part of this world of fungi that I was talking about. Often we imagine ourselves as separate from the things we're describing, especially in the sciences. It's easy to abstract ourselves from the wet, messy, shimmering, chaotic situation that we're talking about. I just didn't want to fall into that trap.

So I thought if I finished the book and then fed it to the Pleurotus fungus, the fungus would digest the book and then it would sprout these oyster mushrooms. Then I'd be able to eat the mushrooms — eat my words and join the loop, connect the circuit and make the book and my discussion of these organisms actually part of these cycles that I was describing.

We are in the midst of a pandemic. Are there any lessons in the world of fungi that might help us right now?

One of the ways is by helping to dissolve some of our hard categories — the boundaries and distinctions that we impose on the world for the sake of our ease of mind, or ease of categorizing, or our need for order or certainty. If we let some of our categories dissolve and reform, we could imagine our way out of the crisis we find ourselves in.

I think we can learn to redesign our lives, our needs and our supply chains in more fungal ways.- Merlin Sheldrake

On a more practical level, mycelial networks are very robust. There's no head or brain, no centre of control. So if you damage a part of the network, it can grow back in a new and unpredictable way.

One of the things we've seen during the pandemic is how vulnerable — how unrobust — our networks of supply, of food growing and production are. If you knock out a few key players, everything comes crashing down. I think we can learn to redesign our lives, our needs and our supply chains in more fungal ways to become more able to adapt to these perturbations in the future, whether they be from pandemic or from other kinds of disasters.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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