There exists an unseen world around us. Outside of our preoccupations with ourselves, our relationships, our jobs, and what we’re doing for dinner, nature weaves perform incredibly fascinating and complex behaviors silently. Atop the list of these incredible feats is the existence and use of what amounts to a fungal internet.
If you need to sit down for what follows, now is your best opportunity.
Yes, you read it right. Not only can plants utilize various forms of fungi to transmit data from one to another in a network that resembles a sort of bio-internet, but these plants often develop mutually-beneficial relationships with the fungi.
The typical relationship goes a little something like this: a plant allows fungi to weave itself throughout its root network via a fungi’s mycelia – the thread-like portions of the plant that extend deep into the ground much like a plant’s roots. After the two organisms are successfully interwoven, they adopt what 19th Century German biologist Albert Bernard Frank coined “mycorrhiza” – the result of the fungi having fully colonized the roots of its host plant.
From there, the plant provides carbohydrates to the fungi in exchange for assistance from the fungi by way of supplying such nutrients as water, nitrogen, and phosphorus through their mycelia networks. If that sounds incredible, it only gets more so: mycelia networks connect with others, which are in turn connected to other host plants, to exchange information. In this manner, the mycelia networks function as a sort of plant-based neural network.
When one plant is under attack by a colony of hungry insects or a debilitating disease, they can transmit warnings to other nodes in the network, allowing those plants to prime their defenses for any incoming invaders. The notion of “priming” occurs in other instances as well – when the fungi first forms its mycorrhiza bond with its partner plant, the fungi “primes” the plant by triggering the production of defensive chemicals within the host. In effect, the bond with the fungi supercharges the host plants immune system.
Information isn’t the only thing that can be transmitted on the network, however. Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver was the first to uncover that plants are capable of transferring compounds such as carbon between one another via their mycelia.
Simard examined the relationship between Douglas Firs and Paper Birch trees and found that the trees were not only capable of transferring carbon from one to another, but could also exchange nitrogen and phosphorus. This evidence led Simard to believe that larger and older trees utilize this mycorrhizal network to assist saplings during their formative stages – something that she believes many saplings could not survive without.
“These plants are not really individuals in the sense that Darwin thought they were individuals competing for survival of the fittest. In fact, they are interacting with each other, trying to help each other survive.” – Suzanne Simard
With every successive year of research and exploration, our perception of the world morphs and changes to deal with the influx of new information. What is perhaps most interesting about contemporary science being not in the new discoveries that it makes, but in the manner which it confirms beliefs long held by past cultures and civilizations. The notion that all life on Earth is interconnected is only propped up by evidence of behavior patterns such as those found even in plants. It’s clear that our world is one of a delicate, yet incredible balance maintained by the cycle of life and death – and the symbiotic and mutually-beneficial relationships that organisms form to aid their chances of survival.
For so long, industry and economy have led mankind’s mentality toward the destruction and modification of our shared home’s natural habitats. While much of the activism against deforestation and other intrusive resource-gathering practices have focused around the risks posed to indigenous species, the truth is that the wanton destruction of our world poses a threat to us all. We are still far from even comprehending our existence in its totality – if that is even an attainable goal. But the more we uncover, the deeper that we realize we are all connected to one another, whether we like it or not.
For humanity to adopt a worldview that bears empathy for all living things is so far outside of our current scope of perception that it seems utterly idealistic to hope that one day mankind will regard the state of its habitat before it regards the state of its checking account. And yet, such a future is inevitable, our only choice is in deciding whether we will fight against the tide or usher it in peacefully.
The last decade has seen an explosion of research into alternative methods of energy and less intrusive methods of harvesting raw materials from our planet as a direct result of the precipice that we have communally pushed ourselves toward. In the pursuit of wider margins we have seen our air filled with pollutants, our soil choked with toxins, and our oceans poisoned and acidified through excess toxins. Although we are slowly making headway toward a future free of ecological brutality, we may already be to late.
It’s no secret that the effects of climate change have begun to make themselves more and more prevalent. Scorching heatwaves, increasingly violent storms, and increased climatological instability have kicked the entire scientific community into high-gear, but to truly heal the damage we have wrought upon our planet, we will need to develop and embrace a worldview that will allow us to extend empathy not only toward our fellow beings, but to the wonderful host of living things that we share our world with.
Alas, the malaise of materialism continues to hold many of our brothers and sisters hostage in its vice-like grip. If we are ever to transcend the simplistic notion that we are what we wear and shop for, it will take a mammoth effort from all involved to usher in a worldview that doesn’t place our salaries and 401k’s front and center.