What Mushrooms Can Offer Us

Beneath Jim Anderson’s feet lies a monster. It has been alive since the Persian king Xerxes waged war against the Ancient Greeks and weighs more than three blue whales put together. But this is no long-forgotten beast borne of Greek mythology. It is a mushroom.

Anderson is standing in an unassuming patch of woodland in Crystal Falls, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is revisiting an organism living under the forest floor that he and his colleagues discovered nearly 30 years ago. This is the home of Armillaria gallica, a type of honey mushroom.

When Anderson and his colleagues visited Crystal Falls in the late 1980s, they discovered that what at first appeared to be a rich community of Armillaria gallica flourishing beneath the mulch of leaf litter and top soil of the forest floor was – in fact – one giant individual specimen. They estimated it covered an area about 91 acres, weighed 100 tonnes and was at least 1,500 years old. It set a new record at the time for the largest organism on the planet – a similar fungus in a forest in Oregon now holds the record.

Anderson and his team believe the fungus has a mechanism that helps to protect its DNA from damage, giving it one of the most stable genomes in the natural world. While they have still to unravel exactly what this is, the remarkable stability of the genome of Armillaria gallica could offer new insights into human health.

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