Book review of “The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi,” by Keith Seifert

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Nowadays racism and sexism are virtually universally scorned as evils. But speciesism, the notion that people are inherently excellent to all other organisms and, hence, entitled to exploit them, remains firmly rooted in our way of considering — and acting.

Granted, charismatic flora and fauna like dolphins, redwoods and bald eagles are regarded as worthy of our empathy and security. Weeds, rodents and creepy-crawlies of all varieties, on the other hand, are decidedly less admired.

On the bottom of just about everyone’s checklist are fungi, the Rodney Dangerfields of the biotic world. They are loathed by numerous who check out them as unhygienic hangers-on that will need to be stamped out with a deadly battery of fungicides, disinfectants and prescribed drugs.

But eradicating fungi from the globe — even if that had been possible — would sum to signing our very own demise warrant, states Keith Seifert in his e book “The Concealed Kingdom of Fungi: Exploring the Microscopic Planet in Our Forests, Households, and Bodies.”

The retired Canadian mycologist (fungus scientist) has written an accessible primer on a a great deal-maligned class of organisms whose life maintain our very own. Without the need of fungi, forests could not improve, agriculture would grind to a halt, carbon could not be recycled. There would speedily be no everyday living at all.

Fungi, the creator tells us, are the meek that long in the past inherited the Earth. There may well be 10 situations a lot more species of fungi than all animals, vegetation and birds combined. (Nobody is aware of for certain, because most fungi have never ever been adequately surveyed.) Rob Dunn, an ecologist who contributed an engaging foreword, implies that we rename our current Anthropocene era “the Myocene,” because “however great our human affect may perhaps be, it pales in comparison with that of the fungi.”

However even science arrived late to their review, and mycology stays a rather underfunded backwater whose acolytes perform their investigations in basement laboratories considerably from the gleaming halls of the extra outstanding disciplines.

Like the experts who research them, fungi prosper in even the smallest and most inhospitable niches, from the base of the sea to the cracks in wooden flooring. Fungal evolution diverged from other dwelling kingdoms 1.5 billion decades back, and fungi stay among the our planet’s most resourceful survivors.

The reason they are so indispensable is that fungi are nature’s undertakers, tasked with disposing of the lifeless, returning crucial vitamins to the soil and making certain the continuity of daily life.

These normal recyclers are all over the place. Seifert tells us that there are about 2,000 miles of fungal hyphae — microscopic filaments much thinner than a human hair — in a single teaspoon of wealthy natural and organic soil. Fungi inhabit our guts and colonize our pores and skin and hair follicles. These companions rarely pose threats to human daily life, the author assures us, despite the fact that there are notable exceptions: the mildew aspergillosis, for a single, which kills thousands of people a 12 months due to the fact of clinic-acquired bacterial infections. Poison mushrooms (mushrooms are the fruiting bodies made by certain fungi) comprise deadly mycotoxins that discourage foragers.

For the most aspect, however, fungi stay in harmony with the ecosystems that they enable hold in equilibrium. But that balance is staying disturbed. With climate improve, fungal tree health conditions unfold by bark beetles are destroying conifer forests through North America. Fungal rusts and smuts that are proliferating in our ever more warmer and wetter globe endanger the world’s coffee offer. Seven out of the 9 major crop ailments that threaten our food items provide are fungal.

In spite of their harmful likely, fungi have a generous knack for operating cooperatively with other organisms. Their greatest-recognized symbiotic partnership is with lichen, in which algae generate food stuff for fungi by way of photosynthesis, and the fungi knit the algae with each other into a composite organism whose most vital ecological purpose is breaking rocks down to make new soil.

Less perfectly recognised — until eventually a short while ago at minimum — are the wide underground networks of mycelium in forests, termed “the woodwide web,” which hook up trees to a person a further and facilitate the transfer of vitamins and minerals and information among them.

Plants rely on the fungi that stay on their roots to help them greater take up vitamins and minerals, shield against pathogens and tolerate drought. Seifert claims we need to harness these talents. As an alternative of lacing fields with nitrogen-dependent fertilizers to artificially promote plant development, the author envisions a change towards “biofertilizers”— fungi-wealthy inoculants that will assistance crops to just take nitrogen immediately out of the air.

Fungi are also getting cultured as meat replacements, and their mycelia fibers have been enlisted in the manufacture of biodegradable packaging and constructing materials. These voracious microorganisms are staying used to cleanse up oil spills and radioactive squander, and to split down plastics. Bioprospectors are in search of out new varieties of fungi in the wild that can aid deliver a new generation of prescribed drugs and psychoactive medicines. (The hallucinogen LSD was designed from the ergot fungus that grows on wheat.)

The writer credits these humble organisms with the capacity to spark a revolution in the way that individuals relate to mother nature. Engineering is typically seen as staying opposed to the natural get. But the burgeoning area of “mycotechnology” points to a potential in which we will master to perform with each other with the natural earth instead than versus it. “Look to the fungi. Learn from their ways,” Seifert urges.

The ebook is point-hefty but lacking in the variety of entertaining anecdotes and asides that might make for less complicated reading. It also jumps from topic to subject with no exploring nearly anything in a lot depth. These are fewer flaws than the mother nature of the job that Seifert has set for himself — to provide an encyclopedic survey of the field.

For the innately curious, “The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi” will be an eye-opening introduction to a secretive planet that most of us know much too little about.

Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist. His newest book is a poetry collection, “What the Dust Doesn’t Know.”

The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi

Exploring the Microscopic Earth in Our Forests, Houses, and Bodies

Greystone. 280 pp. $27.95