Often the most interesting discoveries happen by chance.
That’s what happened to me when I was watching the series “Hannibal“. To be honest, the first episode I was not very interested. On the contrary, the second episode intrigued me. Without going into gruesome details (the enclosed picture is already quite disturbing …), I will just say that FBI found in a forest some dead bodies used by a serial killer to fertilize mushrooms. The murderess, in fact, is haunted by the similarities between the structures of the fungi and human mind.
This last detail sparked my curiosity. So, doing some research, I stumbled upon several pages that talked about the mushrooms are more similar to animals than to plants.
Is that to say that vegetarians are cannibals without being aware?
Well, the situation is a bit different, but certainly not less fascinating.
According to the theory of evolution, we all descended from a common ancestor that gave birth to the amazing variety of life on our planet, with subsequent changes and adaptations to the external environment. We animals, plants and fungi (mushrooms are, in fact, a kingdom in itself) have a common ancestor to be found in algae’s, long, long time ago.
Evolution works as a tree: from the trunk, the branches are developed and, in turn, give birth to smaller branches. So, biologically and genetically, we are more or less close relatives to all around us, stones included.
Well, the branch of mushrooms is much closer to the one of animals than to plants.
Surprising, isn’t it? Let’s see the genetic characteristics and their expression in the physiology of organisms so “different” from each other:
1) Animals and fungi do not use photosynthesis and they do not have chlorophyll, differently from plants. They use external organic substances to feed.
2) The cell wall of fungi is made of a protein called chitin, the base of the exoskeleton of insects. Chitin cannot be found in any plant.
3) In the fungal cell membrane, ergosterol (or provitamin D2) performs the same functions of cholesterol in the animal. The ergosterol is synthesized via lanosterol, an alcohol that plants do not possess.
4) Fungi, when exposed to radiation, spontaneously produce vitamin D, just like animals.
Plants do not produce ergosterol, all traces of vitamin D2 are production of mycosis or symbiosis with a fungus (endofitism).
Unfortunately, the amount of vitamin D in plants, as resulting from external contamination, is not sufficient to consider it an integral part of a balanced diet, even in plants where the concentration is higher (Solanaceae, then potatoes, tomatoes, peppers).
5) Glycogen, a complex sugar, works as an energy reserve in animals and fungi.
Unbelievable but true, someone would say that mushrooms are only missing a pair of legs…
However we need to remember one thing: the variety of life on earth, rather than compartmentalized, is distributed on a continuum of variables, such as the colors of the rainbow are not only seven but many more, with infinite shades.
Then it should not surprise us if the communication between living beings is also a key component of fungi and plants, even though we consider communication first of all the linguistic and verbal one. Even mushrooms and plants communicate and, following the obsession of the killer of “Hannibal”, soon we will explore the even more fascinating similarities between mushrooms and human brain.
Ah, yes: the mushroom in the first image is called Hydnellum Peckii, or Devil’s Tooth, and is inedible. It is not poisonous, but extremely bitter. In particular those blood red droplets and that can cover the entire cap: it is latex, in this mushroom of a beautiful ruby color, which exudes naturally when the fungus is very wet. In short, interesting. But also disturbing and not even good to eat. Great decoration for Halloween!
For this post, thanks to the biologist-to-become Giuseppe Pascucci for counseling and advice.