The Amazing Accomplishments of The Fungus

It reads like the frightening foundation of a work of otherworldly fiction: humans existing on a planet enveloped by a vast, all-encompassing conglomerate that is both natural and alien at the same time. It's a real-life global realm intensely explored in the documentary The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World.
Photo: Steve Axford
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It reads like the frightening foundation of a work of otherworldly fiction: humans existing on a planet enveloped by a vast, all-encompassing conglomerate that is both natural and alien at the same time.

Fungus grows on a branch.
Fungi are unlike plants in that they don’t live off water or air – they exist by consuming tissue.

A group of beings so mighty they played a substantial role in the forming Earth as we know it, with the ability to yield powers capable of both helping and harming us. And often it’s being done covertly, despite the fact that it surrounds us every day of our lives.

Blue fungi grows out of a log.
Blue fungi grows out of a log.

It’s a real-life global realm intensely explored in the documentary The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World. The scientists and experts featured in The Kingdom may have differing opinions regarding the pronunciation of the word fungi (it’s the age-old battle of “fun-guy” versus “fun-gee”), but they do agree on one thing: no matter how you say it, fungi are a very underappreciated force of nature. They are our planet’s original industrious loners, the beings that are neither plant nor animal. As evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn explains in The Kingdom:

The study of fungi is still ongoing.
The study of fungi is still ongoing.

“Fungi have a billion years of experience in doing the hard work of living.”

Fungi also gives us fun foods, like beer and pizza.
Fungi also gives us fun foods, like beer and pizza.

For many people, fungi are synonymous with kitchen-friendly mushrooms. They taste good; we toss them on pizza, we love them in pasta, end of story. That side of fungi barely makes up one line in one chapter in the enormous tome of fungi’s history, an astounding tale that dates back a billion years. Being a delicious addition to cheese and tomato sauce does not a revolutionary world-changer make, and it’s the fragile, microscopic spores that all things fungal sprout from that act as the biological building blocks so much of life on the planet as we know it today are intertwined with.

A helicon fungus grows on a leaf.

In the Precambrian era of Earth’s existence, the snow and glaciers were easing their grip on what we now know as Iceland. Amongst barren stretches of lava fields lies the evidence of fungi getting down and dirty in their evolutionary role that helped shape our planet. By unleashing acid-excreting spores, fungi essentially turned those lava fields into an organic buffet that saw the spores feasting on solid rock. Says Dunn during one Kingdom segment filmed during a research trip to Iceland, “What we’re looking at here is a kind of molecular mining operation. It’s this sort of process through which fungi turn rock to life.”

Fungi can be found on every continent, including Antarctica.
Fungi can be found on every continent, including Antarctica.

How? With pressure 100 times greater than what’s found in a car tire, fast-growing filaments from the spores drilled their way forward on an endless quest for minerals. This extreme pressure acted like the first biological weapon long before mankind was around to invent the term and that to this day can break a solid down into nutrient-rich soil. Back then, that original mining operation led to the creation of the materials vital to plants being able to take root.

Helicon fungi grows on a twig.