Let’s talk about the “F” word

The fungi kingdom is understudied, but there’s an effort underway to change that
Panus lecomtei. STEPHEN AXFORD

This article was created with Re:wild as part of Recurrent‘s charitable partnerships initiative, which supports non-profits that champion sustainable solutions for the planetary crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss.

Dating back to Carl Linnaeus, the “father of modern taxonomy,” when scientists have talked about the wild, they were usually only talking about two of the six kingdoms of life on Earth. With more than 1 million described species, the animal kingdom has the most known species, followed by the plant kingdom with more than 250,000 known species. But there is a renaissance afoot. The fungi kingdom (or funga queendom, if you please) is getting some much deserved attention.

From entertainment to food — fungi are everywhere. The documentary Fantastic Fungi, has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is streaming on Netflix. During the pandemic, the art of raising mushrooms at home boomed. And fungi are being studied for their ability to help cleanup oil spills, create sustainable alternatives to leather, and even treat anxiety and depression.

“We have culturally evolved with fungi over millennia,” says Giuliana Furci, founder of the Fungi Foundation, the first and only fungi-focused NGO. “Wherever we look on Earth, and every civilization that we look into, we see uses of fungi being apparent, either for feeding, healing, clothing, and so much more. The nature-based solutions that fungi hold are overwhelming, and they’re not new discoveries. There are ancient uses in this cultural coevolution that we must go back to.”

Fungi aren’t only having a moment in popular culture. Conservationists are also finally eager to start using the “F” word and learn more about fungi.

“To speak of macroscopic diversity of life as only plants and animals, or by limiting its scope to ‘fauna and flora,’ is obsolete,” says Furci. “Any institution and organization referring to macroscopic nature nowadays should be doing so by using the 3Fs.”

In August 2021, the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the global authority on endangered species, announced that moving forward it would use “mycologically inclusive” language and include fungi in conservation strategies along with plants and animals. The IUCN SSC took the step as a result of the trailblazing 3F Initiative of the Fungi Foundation. The announcement may have seemed innocuous, but it was a momentous step in the conservation world, making the IUCN, along with Re:wild, the first global organizations to recognize fungi as a critical part of the wild.

Fungi are neither plants nor animals, but their own kingdom entirely (a severely understudied kingdom). They are more closely related to animals than to plants, as both digest organic matter, recycling it back into nutrients. The most recent update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, published just shy of the one-year anniversary of the Species Survival Commission’s pledge to be more mycologically inclusive, in July 2022, included 597 species of fungi. That pales in comparison to the more than 85,000 animal species and 60,000 plant species that have been evaluated for their level of extinction risk, but it’s a step in the right direction. Mycologists estimate there could be 3.8 million species of fungi on the planet and only about 8% of them have been described.

As mycologists learn more about the funga queendom — which makes delicacies such as bread, alcohol and cheese possible — some mycologists are also confronting and questioning what has made funga so culturally and scientifically taboo.

Starfish Fungi. STEPHEN AXFORD

Queer mycology

As incredible as fungi are, there are many elements of the queendom that make humans uncomfortable and fearful. Poisonous mushrooms. Antibiotic-resistant fungal infections. Black mold. Fungi’s role in decay.

But mycologist Patricia Kaishian has authored a seminal paper about how queer theory can help us better understand the funga queendom and some of the reasons why it has been understudied. Traditionally, queer theory has examined how and why behaviors that are outside heteronomativity have been ostracized and demonized. When Kaishian applied that lens to mycology, queer mycology was born.

“I was struck by how many parallels I was seeing between the way people react to mushrooms and the way people react to queerness in a culture that’s struggling with homophobia,” says Kaishian.

Fungi exist everywhere on our planet, but as she explained in her paper, because they often subvert or don’t fit into society’s preconceived ideas about sex, reproduction, beauty, agriculture and capitalism — among other things — large swaths of society have developed mycophobia (fear of fungi). And that fear has influenced how we study, describe and protect fungi. 


It’s a fungal world, and we’re just living in it

Fungi have evolved alongside humans and other species for millions of years. A mushroom is more closely related to a human than to a tree. And humans are very dependent on fungi, we have our own mycobiome and our bodies are dependent on the fungi that live in them. As Kaishian says, “our history and fate is deeply intertwined with fungi.”

Kaishian studies a group of fungi known as Laboulbeniales, or as mycologists call them for short “Labouls.” They demonstrate the extremely close relationship fungi have developed with other kingdoms of life.

“They are these very cryptic fungi that have co-evolved with arthropods for hundreds of millions of years,” says Kaishian. “Very few people know about them. Even most mycologists don’t know much about them. They’re the most diverse lineage of fungi associated with insects.”

Kaishian has scoured museum collections looking for Labouls on insect specimens, as well as living insects with their own Labouls companions. Mycologists estimate there are about 70,000 species of Labouls, many of which are still being identified and named.

“They’re not even really, in most cases, seemingly harming the insect, but they have very (close) relationships with the insects that they’re on,” says Kaishian. “Most species can only be on one species of insects, so they have a very tight co-evolutionary journey.”

Birds Nest Fungus, Cyathus novaezelandiae, in New South Wales, Australia. STEPHEN AXFORD

Embracing the “F” word

For mycologists it’s both an exciting and slightly nerve-wracking time to study fungi. Awareness about fungi and the amazing things they can do seems to have awoken an intense interest in enlisting them as allies in curbing climate change. But they caution that fungi shouldn’t just be a means for continuing humanity’s chronic problem of exploiting and over-consuming the planet’s natural resources.

Animal agriculture is responsible for a huge share of global carbon and methane emissions. One of the most effective ways for humans to dramatically slash their personal carbon emissions is to eat more plants and fungi, while reducing meat.

But fungi are not as easily cultivated on a large scale the same way plants are. Mushrooms are often foraged in the wild. Mycologists are not sure if there could be negative consequences if humans forage for mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi, as voraciously as they consume domesticated crops and meat.

“Scientists and mycologists do not know the impact of massive collection of fruiting bodies for all species of fungi,” explains Kaishian. “The studies are really few and far between, and they’re on very specific taxa. What we do know is that fruiting bodies of mushrooms are habitat for other organisms for invertebrates, they’re food for mammals, other than humans. We don’t know the cost of the fungus or to the surrounding ecosystem to constantly have their fruiting bodies removed, especially at large scale.”

Mycena brunneisetosa. STEPHEN AXFORD

The future is fungi

Kaishian and other mycologists argue that we need to find the balance between harnessing the incredible abilities of fungi versus touting them as a one-stop fix for the climate and biodiversity crises. “I’m excited about ideas of myco-remediation and regenerating forests by focusing on myceliating the landscape,” said Kaishian. “I think that there’s awesome uses of fungi that we can partner with to address harms in our environment, but I don’t think we can just rely on them to do all of the work. Elevating fungal biology should be paired with broad environmental protections and decreased consumerism.”