I have read many books on science and natural history, but few have made me stop reading every few pages to look up and declare to whomever is within hearing distance (currently, my husband and cats, because we’re in a pandemic), “This is fascinating.” I don’t care if you’ve never read a book about nature in all your previous existence. Entangled Life will ensorcel you with tales of carnivorous mushrooms, zombie fungi, acid trips, and superhero microorganisms that could end up saving the planet.
If all that doesn’t intrigue you, then consider that the author is a biologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge whose name couldn’t be more British if Charles Dickens had dreamed it up while watching Benedict Cumberbatch eat sticky toffee pudding in Middle Earth after teaching a potions class at Hogwarts.
Don’t forget corgis and a spot of tea.
In addition to being an accomplished biologist in the field of tropical ecology, author Merlin Sheldrake is a skilled writer. Entangled Life is his first book, yet he has already mastered the ability to share information about potentially dry subject matter in a way that’s both accessible and entertaining.
Sheldrake starts by presenting the many tools fungi have for survival, such as the deliciously pungent truffle’s ability to emit a scent so strong that it can be detected above the “olfactory racket” of the forest. That scent is what prompts forest critters to dig up and eat the truffles, the spores of which are then distributed to different parts of the forest through the animals’ feces. That lovely aroma of a $100 per ounce truffle being grated over your pasta is a simple survival tactic for the fungi.
Brought to you by animal poop!
Another fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, has developed a more creative (eh, some might say horrifying) method of dispersing its spores. Known as a “zombie fungus,” this organism infects carpenter ants, compelling the ants leave the safety of their nests and climb the nearest plant. Sheldrake explains how, “In due course the fungus forces the ant to clamp its jaws around the plant in a ‘death grip.’ Mycelium grows from the ant’s feet and stitches them to the plant’s surface. The fungus then digests the ant’s body and sprouts a stalk out of its head, from which spores shower down on ants passing below.” If you’re having trouble envisioning this, don’t worry, Sheldrake has provided photos complete with stalks of fungal-fruiting bodies sprouting from ants’ heads. Or you could just go back and rewatch the 1956 classic horror film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Paging Wes Craven
While most fungi get their nutrients from decaying material, some enjoy fresher fare. Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) produce toxic droplets that paralyze nematodes (a classification of small worms), giving the fungus time to digest their prey. Let me reiterate that in plain speech: oyster mushrooms eat worms. They aren’t alone, either. Hundreds of worm-eating species of fungus use different methods to trap and digest worms, sometimes issuing a chemical signal when they sense nematodes are close by.
We can’t really talk about fungi without addressing the most well-known brain-altering group: psilocybin mushrooms, nature’s LSD. Psilocybin works by reducing activity in the brain’s default mode network, or DMN. The DMN is what keeps law and order in your brain, alternately described by researchers as the “capital city” or the “corporate executive.” Reducing activity in the DMN allows the brain to explore thoughts and ideas without the stodgy old DMN trying to keep it on a leash. As Sheldrake explains, “Cerebral connectivity explodes, and a tumult of new neuronal pathways arise.” Studies from the early 2000s, as well as those from the 1950s and 1960s, suggest that psilocybin can be used to treat depression and anxiety. While the psychological effects of psilocybin can be addictive, the substance itself is not, and everybody was pretty chill about psilocybin until Timothy Leary went from respected Harvard professor to self-appointed poster child for magic mushrooms.
Please, stop trying to help.
It’s taken a long time for psilocybin to work its way back into the public’s good graces; however, controlled studies are taking place to analyze the effects of LSD on creativity and problem solving. In November, Oregon became the first U.S. state to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use.
We may not think about fungus affecting our lives very often, except perhaps to express a like or dislike of mushrooms, yet fungi impact us every day. One of the most obvious ways that fungi have helped humankind is in Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery that penicillin, a chemical produced by a mold, could kill bacteria. This revelation was a boon to modern medicine, but it’s only one small way that fungi are friends of the earth. As masters of decomposition, fungi break down the bodies of dead organisms they encounter; if fungi were to suddenly disappear, we’d be buried in piles of dead animals and plants. Everybody knows that plants are critical to our survival because they supply us with oxygen, but we take for granted that most plants, in turn, rely on fungi. Living in the soil, fungi create networks that exchange carbon and nutrients between trees in what has become charmingly known as “The Wood Wide Web.” In 1997, a Canadian Ph.d. student named Suzanne Simard published the first study suggesting that carbon passed between plants in a natural setting (i.e., not a lab study). She found that distribution occurs between plants that have an excess of resources to those in need, even when those plants are of different species. This might initially suggest that more fortunate plants are selflessly helping those less fortunate ones, which is something of a problem since evolution doesn’t generally favor the altruistic. Lucky for evolutionary theory, the altruism interpretation only works if we take a plant-centric view. If we think in terms of the fungi and what they require, then it makes sense that the fungi would distribute the resources in such a way to ensure that the most plants survive.
Looking out for #1, bitches!
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the amazing qualities of fungi. Scientific studies are demonstrating that these under-appreciated organisms may hold the key to helping bees survive colony collapse disorder. They may also save humans from our own disposable lifestyle, as one recent study demonstrated that the omnivorous Pleurotus mycelium can thrive on a diet of used diapers. And if that’s the most alarming use of diapers you’ve ever heard, I’m guessing you’ve never been to a baby shower.
Kill me now.
For years, mycology has languished as one of the most under-studied sciences. Until the 1960s, fungi were classified as plants, and although they now comprise their own kingdom, the standard Linnaean system of taxonomy still poses problems. As Sheldrake observes, “a single species of fungus can grow into forms that bear no resemblance to each other whatsoever.” In other words, a horse always grows into a horse, and a bird always grows into a bird, but the same can’t be said of a fungus. On top of that, only 56 species of fungi have had their conservation status evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as opposed to more than 25,000 plants and 68,000 animals.
For such a critical resource on which everything else depends, fungi have certainly been neglected by humankind. We can correct that, though, and the first step is to read this amazing book. Whether you’re into mind-controlling zombies or saving the world, you won’t regret it.