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The Mystical Powers of Mushrooms

Science

Until 1969, biologists thought mushrooms and other fungi were plants. They're actually more closely related to animals, but with enough differences that they inhabit their own distinct classification.

This and more recent findings about these mysterious organisms illustrate how much we have yet to learn about the complexities of the natural world. New research reveals mushrooms can even help plants communicate, share nutrients and defend themselves against disease and pests.

There's far more to mushrooms than the stems and caps that poke above ground. Photo credit: Shutterstock

There's far more to mushrooms than the stems and caps that poke above ground. Most of the organism is a mass of thin underground threads called mycelia. These filaments form networks that help plants, including trees, connect to each other, through structures called mycorrhizae.

Scientists believe about 90 percent of land-based plants are involved in this mutually beneficial relationship with fungi. Plants deliver food to the mushroom, created by photosynthesis, and the filaments, in turn, assist the plants to absorb water and minerals and to produce chemicals that help them resist disease and other threats. And, of course, a myriad of other life forms benefit from the healthy plants.

The structure and function of the mycelial networks and their ability to facilitate communication between physically separated plants led mycologist Paul Stamets to call them “Earth's natural Internet." He's also noted their similarity to brain cell networks. According to a Discover article, “Brains and mycelia grow new connections, or prune existing ones, in response to environmental stimuli. Both use an array of chemical messengers to transmit signals throughout a cellular web."

Research by Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia found that Douglas fir and paper birch trees transfer carbon back and forth through the mycelia, and other research shows they can also transfer nitrogen and phosphorous. Simard believes older, larger trees help younger trees through this process. She found that the smaller trees' survival often depends on large “mother trees" and that cutting down these tree elders leaves seedlings and smaller trees more vulnerable.

Researchers in China found trees attacked by harmful fungi are able to warn other trees through the mycelia networks, and University of Aberdeen biologists found they can also warn other plants of aphid attacks.

It all adds to our growing understanding of how interconnected everything on our planet is, and how our actions—such as cutting down large “mother" trees—can have unintended negative consequences that cascade through ecosystems.

Scientists are also finding that fungi can be useful to humans beyond providing food and helping us make cheese, bread, beer and wine. Stamets believes mushrooms can be employed to clean up oil spills, defend against weaponized smallpox, break down toxic chemicals like PCBs and decontaminate areas exposed to radiation.

He credits his interest in fungi to another fascinating aspect of many mushrooms around the world: their hallucinogenic properties. During college, Stamets spent a lot of time in the Ohio woods, where he first tried psilocybin mushrooms. They had a profound effect on him, and after his first experience, his persistent stutter went away. He later quit a logging job, because the work was destroying mushroom habitat, and began studying fungi at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Since then, his research has led to fascinating discoveries of multiple possible purposes for fungi, including nuclear decontamination, water filtration, biofuels, increasing agricultural yields, pest control and medicines.

Research is also shedding light on potential benefits of the psychotropic properties of mushrooms, such as the 144 species that contain psilocybin. Indigenous people have long used hallucinogenic mushrooms for ceremonial, spiritual and psychological purposes—and with good reason, it turns out. Psilocybin has been shown to improve the brain's connectivity. Researchers are finding the chemical can help combat depression, anxiety, fear and other disorders, and increase creativity and openness to new experience. This makes them potentially beneficial for post-traumatic stress, addiction and palliative care treatments.

We humans have made a lot of technological and scientific advances, and this sometimes gives us the sense that we're above or outside of nature, that we can do things better. Sometimes it takes a fascinating lifeform like a mushroom to shake us from our hubris and show us how much we have yet to learn about the world and our place in it.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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