We know you're probably thinking, "Okay, where in the H - E - double hockey sticks are they taking this article??" Well, buckle up because we're not exactly sure where the article will end, but, we do know that we've read some pretty wild scientific articles about how mushrooms are more similar to humans than plants. You probably read that sentence and thought, "Phew someone went down a couple rabbit holes." And you're right, we totally did. Here's the thing, mushrooms are portrayed as cute little umbrellas for tiny froggies, hats for fairies, or cushy thrones for a pipe smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. And who can blame these award-winning artists and novelists for making mushys look so dang adorable?! The reality behind mushrooms (of all varieties) is that they come into the circle of life when death and decay have come for other living matter. They are the tiny forest umbrellas of decay and even crazier than that...humans and animals share similarities in DNA!
So let's get into it. Science stuff!
Think back to the last time you walked through a dense, overgrown forest. You probably saw all kinds of plant life – vines, bushes, moss, trees, and a healthy number of fallen logs. A forest is one of the best places to see the circle of life at its most beautiful, which is when life balances with death. When things die in nature, they begin to break down and decompose, which is where fungi come into play. Humans have always been fascinated by life in all its forms. Thousands of years ago, we classified life on earth into just two categories: plants and animals. Aristotle then further divided animals into those with and without blood and those in the land, sea, and air. That rudimentary system remained in place until the 1600s. In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus divided life into the kingdoms of animals and plants and then divided them further into different genera and species, which is why we have a two-part naming system in science (Homo sapiens, for example; Homo is the genus and sapiens is the species). It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that single-celled organisms were finally given their due as a separate kingdom of life.
Thanks to modern technology, the analysis of genetic relationships between species and organisms is now possible and has led to looking at relationships between forms of life differently. As it turns out, animals and fungi share a common ancestor and branched away from plants sometime around 1.1 billion years ago. Most likely, this common ancestor was a single-celled organism that exhibited sperm-like characteristics (like an animal) and then a later developmental stage with a stronger cell wall (fungi).
When you sit down to think about it, "plants" have chlorophyll and produce their food through photosynthesis whereas mushrooms exist on the decaying of material in nature...similar to animals and humans! Haven’t you ever noticed that eating a perfectly cooked portobello mushroom feels a lot closer to eating meat than a salad? There is a word for that! It's called Umami. Umami are the non-essential amino acids glutamic and aspartic acids that give mushrooms the dark and meaty flavor. This is the SAME process that happens to meat. Mushrooms even share similarities in texture to meat products. This is due to the high quantities of moisture and proteins. This gives mushrooms a satisfying meat-like texture. Mushrooms are also low in carbohydrates and fibers that are present in vegetables. Certain varieties of mushrooms even shred into pieces like chicken or beef. A commonality that blew our minds between mushrooms and meat was what happens when we marinate them! Citrus juices are commonly used to marinate and tenderize different forms of meat (specifically pork products) because they begin the breakdown process of the protein fibers and tightly woven acids in the protein fibers. ODDLY ENOUGH, citrus juices do THE SAME THING for mushrooms.
Speaking strictly from a scientific standpoint, when Psilocybin Mushrooms are chopped up and immersed in a citric acid found in citric juices, the breakdown and release of the Psilocybin begins. Making the citrus-y juice take on the hallucinogenic properties. This method is used in the growing research popularity of Psilocybin benefits for overcoming life altering events and issues such as PTSD.
Okay so what we've established is that mushrooms 1. Share DNA with animals and humans, 2. They "exist" on the decay of other life forms, 3. They break down similarly to meat, and 4. They can even FEEL like meat!
Just to blow your mind a little more... In 1993, researchers Baldouf and Palmer published a paper, ‘Animals and fungi are each other’s closest relatives: congruent evidence from multiple proteins’. They compared 25 proteins and their DNA sequences between bacteria, plants, animals, and fungi. They found that animals and fungi exhibited similarities in certain proteins that plants and bacteria did not have. “This congruence among multiple lines of evidence strongly suggests, in contrast to the traditional and current classification, that animals and fungi are sister groups, while plants constitute an independent evolutionary lineage,” the researchers write in their paper.
Is your head spinning yet? Welcome to the heavily debated topic of mushrooms! Would it help your information overload if I told you that mushrooms also have a version of an electrical nervous system? Not on the same level as humans or animals, but they utilize their basic nervous systems to communicate with one another. Recent research conducted by computer scientist, Andrew Adamatzky, at the Unconventional Computing Laboratory of the University of the West of England, suggests this ancient kingdom has an electrical “language” all of its own – far more complicated than anyone previously thought. According to the study, fungi might even use “words” to form “sentences” to communicate with neighbors.
Almost all communication within and between multi-cellular animals involves highly specialized cells called nerves (or neurons). These transmit messages from one part of an organism to another via a connected network called a nervous system. The “language” of the nervous system comprises distinctive patterns of spikes of electrical potential (otherwise known as impulses), which help creatures detect and respond rapidly to what’s going on in their environment. Using tiny electrodes, Adamatzky recorded the rhythmic electrical impulses transmitted across the mycelium of four different species of fungi. This raises the possibility that fungi have their own electrical language to share specific information about food and other resources nearby, or potential sources of danger and damage, between themselves or even with more distantly connected partners. Similar to how animals and humans have certain calls and languages with one another, mushrooms do too!
So, what have we learned today? I think we can all agree that mushrooms are WAY more than we thought they were, and it just goes to show that there is so much on this planet that we don't know about. The moment we think we know all there is to know, life has a way of flipping the script. This spring and summer, we challenge you to look at mushrooms and fungus a little differently next time you go on a stroll through the woods. And for goodness sake, don't freaking eat any random forest mushrooms you find. Mushrooms are very poisonous, and you could die.
Peace-out, girl/boy scout!