The Wonder of Fungi

On a beautiful, but cold autumnal Sunday morning we met in the park for worship:

In the fading of the summer sun,
the shortening of days, cooling breeze,
swallows’ flight and moonlight rays
WE SEE THE CREATOR’S HAND

In the browning of leaves once green,
morning mists, autumn chill,
fruit that falls, frost’s first kiss
WE SEE THE CREATOR’S HAND

Just take a few moments to reflect on creation and in so doing worship the Creator.

Our Generous God

We praise and thank you for:

creation,

for changing seasons,

for life and love,

for incarnation and new life,

for unending undeserved love.

 

We rejoice in your persistent song,

yearning and calling,

waiting and welcoming,

gathering and loving,

making us whole.

 

We thank you for peace promised,

for the hope of kingdom shalom,

here and now

the three in one

God with us.

The wonder of fungi.

Of all life on Earth, there’s something more mysterious and more vital to our survival than anything else. Much of its life is hidden underground. And only at the end of its life cycle does it reveal its identity. The mushroom. They have a secret life so magical, so weird, that it almost defies imagination, to create new medicines and even clean up polluted soils. The  story of fungi is so strange it seems almost alien, yet they are crucial to all life on Earth.

The only place many of us encounter mushrooms is in the supermarket. Cultivated edible varieties like these, are all most of us think about when it comes to mushrooms. We British can’t get enough. It’s a multimillion pound business in the UK.  But there’s so much more to mushrooms than the examples in the vegetable section. The mushroom is just one species from an enormous kingdom, the kingdom of the fungi, and fungi are hidden away in all kinds of food products in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Blue cheese, and the blue is a fungus. A lot of soft drinks and fizzy drinks have citric acid in them, and that’s produced by a fungus in huge quantities. Many detergents also contain citric acid, just like fizzy drinks.  Here’s soy sauce, bread, QuornWild red salmon, the red colour, is sometimes due to a fungus called Phaffia. Some of the protein in pet foods, is actually produced by fungi. Then there’s alcohol. The fermenting activity is due to Saccharomyces, turning sugars into alcohol and CO2. Alcohol is therefore the metabolic product of yeast in beer and wine making.

Our supermarket shop wouldn’t be the same without fungi. They’re hidden away in all sorts of ways in the products, due to them having a  whole series of biochemical tricks up their sleeve. The global trade in edible fungi is worth £32 Billion a year.

 

Some may think they look like any other plant, but in fact, they’re a different organism altogether. Fungi have evolved as a kingdom in their own right, distinct from plants and animals. They evolved into a distinct kingdom over one and a half billion years ago. It’s thought that in variety, they outnumber plants by ten to one.

You may not realise that what we call the mushroom is, in fact, just one type of fungus. It’s the form that we are most familiar with and the easiest to recognise. The head of a mushroom is the cap. This is the stalk. Look underneath the cap, and you’ll find a set of sharp ridges known as gills. And it’s from the gills that the spores are released. A mushroom, is a fruiting body, it is the reproductive structure of a fungus and its sole purpose is to produce spores. Eventually, when the spores are fully ripened, they drop off into that air space between the gills, and fall from the mushroom, they are then carried away by air currents.

We can do something called a spore print. Every mushroom has its own unique spore print. These spores are like the seeds of a mushroom. They do create  a rather beautiful pattern on the paper. They’re just like the silhouettes of a mushroom, and that colour of the spore print is unique to that type of mushroom.

Fungi have the power to affect our lives in unexpected ways. One of the most striking displays of their power to affect our lives is through – the most widely-used type of drug on the planet – antibiotics. Antibiotics are tremendously important in our fight against infection. Up to about 30% of patients in hospital can be on antibiotics at any one time. They’re used to treat things like pneumonias, skin and soft tissue infections and prevent surgical site infections post operatively.

The invention of antibiotics has been a game changer for medicine and humankind. And we owe it all to fungi.

So far we’ve just been thinking about  the fruiting body of the mushroom, most people think that is the mushroom. But it’s only part of the organism. To understand how fungi relate to other organisms on our planet, we have to realise what’s going on underground. You might think that what we see above the ground is the main part of the fungus but the vast majority of the organism is hidden underground. It’s made up of a huge web of tiny threads, hyphae, spreading out in search of food. This network of fungal filaments is called  a mycelium.  A mycelium is the scientific name for the fungus’s feeding network. And the only way many fungi can get what they need, is by attaching themselves to other organisms, and engaging in a two-way exchange of nutrients. Symbiosis. It’s a process that results in one of the most complex, and important relationships in the natural world. It’s estimated that about 90% of all wild plants on Earth will form very special associations with fungi. The fungi will attach themselves to the plant roots, they then form sheaths on the outside, that envelop the root like a kind of glove. This is where the nutrient exchange takes place between the fungus and the root. This nutrient exchange works both ways. The fungus feeds on sugars from the plant that it needs to grow, and in return gives back water and minerals that the plant is unable to absorb enough of itself.

A healthier plant and a healthier fungus mean healthier soil. All this is invisible to us, but it’s all around us. It’s going on in every park and in every field and in every woodland in Britain. Without this relationship, plants wouldn’t thrive so well.

While some fungi are parasitic and feed on living organisms, others only eat things that are dead. These fungi are able to break down and digest organic waste and in doing so, recycle it. These fungi are called saprophytes. They are  vital for the natural world. Every dead leaf and twig and branch in this park is being consumed by fungal mycelia, which break down the cellulose and lignin and other complex compounds. So even dead wood can be digested by fungi. Were it not for the constant activity of fungal mycelia,  the whole planet would be covered with a mass of scrub and leaf. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the fungi  that digests dead plant material. They have successfully recycled the world’s natural waste for hundreds of millions of years, making entire ecosystems habitable for animals and plants.

Another amazing ability of fungi is to break down toxic waste. Fungal mycelia can break down the hydrocarbons present in much chemical waste. It’s a process called bioremediation. The fungi literally eat away the pollutants. As an experiment a heavily polluted petrochemical site in the US  was seeded with an oyster mushroom mycelium, it was later found that the soil had been transformed by the fungal mycelium and was teeming with new life, with lots of worms and insects. The  decomposition process that the fungi started is continued by other soil micro-organisms – bacteria and slime molds, and you eventually end up with soil that’s richer than it was to begin with.  The oyster mushroom mycelium can not only digest chemical waste – it can also create an entirely new soil ecosystem where plants and invertebrates can thrive.

Prayer

Watching a TV programme about fungi a few weeks ago I was amazed at how far the mycelium from a fungi spread under the ground, unseen, unsung and yet doing something absolutely crucial and amazing. It reminded me of the many unsung heroes who bring the love of God to others. Those who feed the hungry, stand up for justice, who are peacemakers, people who work with the unloved, the lonely, the homeless and all others in need. So often we come across organisations or individuals who are working selflessly, often in very difficult circumstances to show the love of God and yet they are usually unrecognised in a world that celebrates the rich and famous.

Using a stone mushroom I made something to represent the mycelium underground and we wrote the names of individuals and organisations that were bringing the love of God to others. We then wrote down the names of places or people who needed to know the love of God at this time.

Sharing bread & wine 

In this bowl with the bread
We place our hopes and dreams:
Those who are closest to us,
Those whose lives are bound up with our lives………….

And with these, we unite those more distant to us:
The whole of anonymous humankind
Scattered in every corner of the globe;
Our distant brothers and sisters remembering you in bread and wine today
A multitude of people, each reflecting your image, each needing your grace……….

And not only the living, but also the dead
We remember those who have loved us and inspired us and gone before us………

The Bread of life…………..

Into these cups of wine we pour

our sorrows and suffering,
our failings and fears,
our pain and sadness………..

The wine poured out…………

May all life – past, present and future, near and far –
Now be brought together  in this sharing of bread and wine,
And in the hope of your coming kingdom of shalom.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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