Plants share information using nature's fungal internet

Fungi have given us beer, penicillin and soy sauce to name but a few items. But did you know these fascinating organisms also allow plants to send each other nutrients and warnings through a kind of 'social network?'

From microbes to millipedes to moles, the soil beneath our feet is teeming with largely unseen life. One more hidden treasure is the vast underground fungal network that allows plants to share nutrients and information. 

Global Ideas | 30.03.2015

These threadlike systems of mycelium branch out under the forest floor, connecting the roots of distant trees in what scientists have dubbed the "wood wide web" and "Earth's natural internet."(Fungus expert Paul Stamets is behind the latter term. He is allegedly the inspiration for the "Star Trek: Discovery" space fungus expert of the same name, as well as some of the science in the show.)

Read: Shine bright like a mushroom

These fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants — the roots of which they colonize. The plants feed the fungi with carbohydrates and these underground helpers channel water and, nutrients such as nitrogen, up to their leafy hosts.

Pilzmyzel von einer nicht identifizierten Pilzart, das sich unter der Rinde eines verrottenden Baumastes befindet

Vast underground networks of fungi enable the transfer of nutrients between plants

German botanist and mycologist — as a person who studies fungi is called — Albert Bernhard Frank, reportedly coined the term mycorrhiza to describe this relationship in his 19th Century paper on underground fungi and their role in nourishing certain trees.

Sharing is caring

Only in recent years have scientists come to understand that the "wood wide web" is about more than transferring nutrients between fungi and plants. It also allows plants to send resources, such as carbon, to one another.

Scientists are still trying to untangle the functions and scope of these networks. Are they, for instance, a sign of cooperation or, in some instances, rivalry?

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BdT - Fliegenpilz

Mushrooms are the above-ground fruiting bodies of largely underground fungi

Soil ecologist Franciska de Vries from the University of Manchester told The Atlantic in 2016 that in times of drought, stronger trees that can still photosynthesize could send carbon to weaker ones, thereby increasing the resilience of a forest. Others "steal" carbon. It also seems that some plants warn each other of dangers such as aphid attacks, so their peers can raise their defences. 

The discovery leaves us with more to ponder about ubiquitous and indispensable fungi, which occur in every environment on earth and play a critical role as decomposers — and, therefore, providers of food — in most land ecosystems. For biologists, many questions remain about this social network of plants. Still, one thing's for sure: the interconnectedness of organisms in ecosystems goes even deeper than we had imagined.


Death Cap

Amanita phalloides, known as the death cap, is one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the Federal Republic of Germany. In late July 2017 five Eastern-European immigrants were hospitalized in Hannover, after mistaking them for tasty champignons. And in 2015 a 16-year-old Syrian died after mistaking this deadly fungus for another mushroom commonly eaten in his homeland.


European white egg

The Death Cap is one of many mushrooms in the genus Amanita, and is often mistook for the Amanita ovoidea, or the the European white egg. This mushroom is edible and common in the Mediterranian countries, but it too resembles the Amanita proxima, which is deadly poisonous. Moral of the story? Be careful with your Amanitas!


Phantom of the forest

The Macrolepiota, of the family Agaricaceae, is cherised in culinary circles. For the layman, it's almost impossible to tell a difference between it and the Death Cap. The Macrolepiota is most prevalent in willows and nutrient-rich soil.


Delicacy or poisonous toad?

Kuehneromyces (pictured above) are tasty and healthy, while Galerina marginata are deadly poisonous. Again, the two are almost impossible to tell apart. It is amatoxins that make the Galerina marginata so poisonous, the same thing that makes the Death Cap so deadly.


Mario Bros mushrooms

When it comes to iconic fungus, the Amanita muscaria is the one. Every German boy and girl knows not to eat this mushroom, because it's poisonous! But it wasn't always that way. The toxicity of this mushroom varies regionally around Europe.


Ambiguous fungus

Some of the 100 species of clitocybe mushrooms are edible, other poisonous. The latter contain muscarine, which is a neurotoxin. There are cases in which consumption of clitocybes has led to Erythromelalgia, which is a nervous disorder that results in swelling and pain in the limbs.


Life-threatening belly aches

The toxic effect of Entoloma, which comprise over 1000 species of mushroom, targets the stomach. If you eat one of these, you may very well be spending the night in the bathroom. Vomitting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps are the usual symptoms. In severe cases, you'll need an infusion to survive.

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