As a boy, Merlin Sheldrake loved autumn. In the garden of his parents' house the leaves fell from a large chestnut tree, forming sweet mounds in which he loved to dive. They were places for him to hide and explore. Over time they have shrunk: why?
His father (Rupert Sheldrake, the controversial science writer known for proposing the concept of "morphic resonance") explained why. Discovering the phenomenon of decomposition, Merlin began to love mycology.
Mycology, the study of fungi: a real neglected "megascience". “In East Asia, mushrooms have been loved and revered for thousands of years,” he says. “In China, there are temples for the man who discovered how to grow shiitake mushrooms. But yes, mycology has really been neglected in the West ”.
For what reason?
There are, he thinks, two reasons for this.
The first It's simple: technologies have only recently become available that allow scientists to delve deeply into the world of mushrooms, and to open the hidden realms that lie beneath us, invisible to the eye.
The second it is a historical reason, indeed: a rooted prejudice. Mushrooms were not regarded as a 'living' kingdom until the 60s. The mycologists were placed in a corner of the plant science department rather than their fungal science department. This has had a huge impact: if you don't train researchers, research languishes.
The mushroom taxonomy itself has been a total disaster for centuries. Linnaeus described it as chaos. During the Middle Ages and into the XNUMXth century, people thought mushrooms sprouted from the spot where lightning struck. Or that edible mushrooms could be distinguished from lethal mushrooms simply by boiling them with a wooden spoon.
Today Merlin wrote an amazing book on mycology. Is called "The hidden order. The secret life of mushrooms"(In English it is"Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures"). It could forever alter our perception of mushrooms and somehow seem to turn the natural world upside down.
Mycology seen from the inside
The science Sheldrake refers to is complex.
For his work on underground fungal networks in Panamanian forests, Sheldrake holds a PhD in tropical ecology from the University of Cambridge. Its main interest is mycorrhizal fungi, which live in symbiosis with plants.
These fungi emit thin tubes called hyphae, which are woven into the root tips of plants at the cellular level; In this way, the individual plants are joined to each other by an underground network - a vast, highly intricate collaborative structure that has been dubbed the Wood Wide Web.
Sheldrake has a gift for making difficult ideas easily understood. His enthusiasm for mycology is not just the result of passion. It is founded on his belief that, in the future, mushrooms will play an increasingly crucial role in our understanding of the environment.
Potential of fungal networks
Mycorrhizal relationships matter because 90% of plants, the basis of everything that supports us, depend on them. “Mechanized industrial agriculture has caused enormous damage to the microbial symbiosis of plants,” says Sheldrake. “These fungi don't just feed plants, they protect them from disease and hold the soil together.
Scientists are already harnessing the power of these networks: in Japan, slime mold has been used to design transport networks: “Computers take a long time to scroll through all possibilities, but an organism can find an optimal path fairly quickly and algorithms can then be developed from that. "
And this is only the beginning. There is so much untapped potential. So far only 6-8% of the world's mushrooms have been identified.
The wonders of mycology
In his book, Sheldrake hunts for truffles in Italy (“they were… set like skulls,” he writes of those in Piedmont he saw for sale), and pays due attention to those mushrooms that have mind-altering properties. “We still don't know why some contain psilocybin (a psychedelic compound), ”he says. "It is thought to be to confuse the pests, to take their minds off their next meal, but the problem with the deterrent theory is that it doesn't seem to be very effective."
But there are other things that induce a sense of wonder: for me the awareness that the underground world is just as varied, ingenious and infinitely vast as the one on the surface.
The surprising mushrooms
The hyphae form the mycelium, the branching mass that comprises the vegetative part of a fungus. But they also create more specialized structures, such as mushrooms, organs capable of performing surprising feats.
When some discharge their spores explosively, accelerate 10.000 times faster than a space shuttle after launch. Others can make their way through the asphalt and lift paving stones. One study estimated that if a single hypha were as wide as a human hand, it would be capable of lifting an 8-ton bus. If you untangle the mycelium found in a gram of soil and lay it from one end to the other, it can extend from 100 meters to 10 kilometers.
How should the public behave better towards the mushroom kingdom?
“We need to stop spraying fungicide,” says Sheldrake. “Also, if you pick mushrooms, don't take them all: leave some and try not to damage the nets by digging into the ground”.
Sheldrake is not currently affiliated with any institution. “I have a lot of scientific articles to publish,” he says, “and there are so many experiments to do in mycology. I need funds, but I am reluctant to re-enter academia, in that continuous cycle of grant applications ”. Could you start your own company? "Yes, there's that too."
In his book, he writes almost as admired as Paul Stamets, a man who may have done more than anyone else to spread fungal arguments outside of academia.
Stamets runs a multimillion-dollar mushroom business, Fungi Perfect. In 2008, his TED speech, "Six Ways That Mushrooms Can Save the World", was viewed millions of times and went viral online.