Mycelium - The wood wide web

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Kirill Ignatyev

Woodinfo-icon Wide Web
Contrary to what you might expect, in a forestinfo-icon most treesinfo-icon and shrubs are interconnected with a web of fungiinfo-icon via their root system. It is like the Internetinfo-icon of the woods, where the myceliuminfo-icon assists in the transport of nutrients and valuable information, also known as: 'The wood wide web'.

Nitrogeninfo-icon fixation
In forest-a-like ecosystems nitrogen is the essential building block plantsinfo-icon thrive upon. The more nitrogen available the more growth or fruits a plantinfo-icon, shrubinfo-icon or treeinfo-icon can bear. The air is full of nitrogen, but trees can't get access to it themselves. Instead, via their root system they live in symbioses with a specific type of bacteriainfo-icon – Frankia – known as a nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The Frankia bacteria converts nitrate nitrogen, from air pockets in the soilinfo-icon, to ammonium nitrogen that is usable by the tree. Almost every tree has this relationship in some form, but some excel at it and produce more nitrogen than they can use. These trees are commonly known as: 'nitrogen-fixing trees'.

Nitrogen transport
Nitrogen-fixing trees have built a second beneficial relationship, which is where the mycelium comes in. The beneficial fungi can transport the surplus of nitrogen to nearby plants in exchange for sugars. Most plants use photosynthesis in their green parts to produce those carbohydrates. For the mycelium it is a good trade, because fungi are unable to produce it themselves. The great thing is that the transportation abilities of mycelium aren't limited to just nitrogen. More and more research shows that all sorts of important minerals and chemicals can be distributed by the fungi.

Besides the transportation of nutrients, mycelium plays another vital role in the forest ecosysteminfo-icon. Imagine a large herd that arrives at the edge of a forest, browsing the wealth of edible greens. Shrubs or trees are unable to move or find shelter when they are in danger. Instead, some produce a bitter or even toxic substance to avoid that an animal eats all their leaves or even rip off its bark. They also warn nearby trees and shrubs by releasing specific chemicals that are transported by the mycelium to trees and shrubs close by. These plants start producing the bitter or toxic substance in advance, before the animal arrives.

Ready for more? Let's go indepth: 

Treesinfo-icon communicate
In the video below, Professor Suzanne Simard explains how this process of exchange works. As if this doesn't blow your mind yet, she also coins the idea of 'mother trees' supporting young trees. This concept nuances the core of Darwin’s idea in which every living organism acts as an individual competing for survival of the fittestinfo-icon. Simard states that they actually help each other out to survive.

Other myceliuminfo-icon uses
Mycologist Paul Stamets is crazy about mycelium, as you will probably find out when you watch the two videos below.

The Growing Edge
In a scene from the documentaryinfo-icon: 'Permaculture: The Growing Edgeinfo-icon', Stamets shows how mycelium is capable of cleaning up heavy soilinfo-icon pollution from oilinfo-icon or gasoline spills.

6 ways mushrooms can save the world
Our mycelium wizard Paul Stamets continues his statement on mycelium in his TED talk where he states that mycelium fungusinfo-icon can help save the universeinfo-icon by: cleaning polluted soil, making insecticides, treating smallpox and even flu viruses.

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