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. 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.
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:
“Fungi have a billion years of experience in doing the hard work of living.”
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.
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.”
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.
The Kingdom, a co-production between Australian-based documentarians Smith&Nasht and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, touches upon many underknown facts about the fungi world; from its job as Mother Nature’s composters and recyclers to a remarkable ability to survive in places as extreme and hostile as the Antarctic and the walls of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. There’s also a look at the underground complexities of fungi and their role in the wood wide web , a communications system some experts believe nature has put in place that allows plant life a means to ‘talk’ with one another.
For Kingdom producers Anne Pick and Bill Spahic, their initial expedition into the world of fungi began by examining a deadly outbreak of the Cryptococcus gattii fungus (C. gattii) on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island that occurred 15 years ago. Although this introduction started with the more morbid abilities of unharnessed fungi, it opened the doors to other capabilities. Says the pair via email:
“At every turn in our journey of discovery of this hugely important kingdom we were amazed at how important fungi were to not only the creation of life on land but maintaining life as we know it. Their interactive symbiosis with trees and plants; decomposing dead plant/animal material so that it can be reused again and, of course, our dependence on yeast fungi.”
Yeast fungi? Yes, and responsible for the process of converting sugars into alcohol and creating a fermented liquid concoction that can poison bacteria microbes. Let’s just say that in the days before purification became a standard procedure for our drinking water and pasteurization and refrigeration were not yet invented, you would have been much safer imbibing in a room-temperature beer.
Of course, beer is not the only thing that we can thank fungi for today. Half of the world’s top 20 antibiotics, immunosuppressants and statins are derived from fungi (including penicillin), showcasing fungi’s skill in acting as a chemical laboratory. After their three year submersion in the fungal universe, Pick and Sapphic are also keenly aware of the flip side of this bacterial coin.
“We all know about super bacteria increasingly becoming immune to our most powerful antibiotics. Several of these superbugs are now thought to be immune to our best antibiotics. If we lose our antibiotic effectiveness, we will hark back to early pre-penicillin days of the last century. Millions of people died because of simple bacterial infection.”
These abilities to adapt and conquer are also a reason to respect the strength of fungi as we look to the future – a future that seems to be running full-steam into the not-so-warm embrace of global warming. One barrier that protects us from invasive fungi is our body’s core temperature, which is a little too hot for them to handle. As climate change continues to force the planet’s temperature upwards, fungi are slowly adjusting and adapting along with it.
“In order to try to understand this complex kingdom we needed to know how they created and how they rule our world because they can be both our friend and lethal enemy,” said Pick and Spahic of the bright spotlight The Kingdom shines on every aspect of the world of fungus.
This also includes a recent discovery out of Hamilton, Ontario, by McMaster University professor Gerry Wright, who is using fungi to switch our antibiotics back on to fight superbugs. And with only 2% of the estimated 5 million types of fungi accounted for, we may yet have a few more fungal friends (and possibly some enemies) waiting to be found in the woodwork. Or under a pile of mossy stones. Or when we sneeze. You get the point, right?
You can watch The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World online at CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things.