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Why the hidden world of fungi is essential to life on Earth

The Guardian

Fungi have long supported and enriched life on our planet. They must be protected as fiercely as animals and plants

As you read these words, fungi are changing the way that life happens, as they have done for more than a billion years. They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behaviour, and influencing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Fungi make up one of life’s kingdoms – as broad and busy a category as “animals” or “plants” – and provide a key to understanding our planet. Yet fungi have received only a small fraction of the attention they deserve. The best estimate suggests that there are between 2.2m and 3.8m species of fungi on the Earth – as many as 10 times the estimated number of plant species – meaning that, at most, a mere 8% of all fungal species have been described. Of these, only 358 have had their conservation priority assessed on the IUCN red list of threatened species, compared with 76,000 species of animal and 44,000 species of plant. Fungi, in other words, represent a meagre 0.2% of our global conservation priorities.


This is just one of the bleak findings of Kew’s 2020 report State of the World’s Plants and Fungi, the outcome of a collaboration between 210 researchers in 42 countries. Of course, we should be deeply concerned that a lethal combination of unsustainable agricultural practices and habitat destruction driven by ecocidal government policies and corporate greed now threatens 40% of all plant species with extinction. But just as worrying is the critical underrepresentation of fungi in our litanies of preservation.

Mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi: for the most part, they live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelial networks have no fixed shape. By ceaselessly remodelling themselves they can navigate labyrinths, solve complex routing problems and expertly explore their surroundings. If you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of healthy soil and laid it end to end, it could stretch anywhere from 100 metres to 10km.

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