How do fungi communicate? | MIT Technology Review

How do fungi communicate? | MIT Technology Review

How do fungi communicate? | MIT Technology Review

As fungi grow, they are constantly sensing, learning and making decisions. Fungi are like polyglots: they “talk” and understand a wide range of chemical signals. They release and react to chemicals that float in the air and pass through the water. Fascinatingly, fungi not only perceive but actively interpret the meaning of a chemical based on context and in relation to other chemicals.

Studies of how fungi communicate lag far behind research on plant and especially animal communication. Most are based on several species of “laboratory rats”, so knowledge of the other types is limited, but here we summarize what is known about three domains of communication: within a fungus, between fungi of the same species and with other organisms.

In a mushroom

Each growing tip has both autonomy and responsibility to the whole organism, similar to the relationship of social insects to the hive. Between the cells of each mycelium there is a flow of chemicals, nutrients and electrical impulses. Their movements act to keep the whole informed of events and coordinate actions across the network. Research by Andrew Adamatzky, professor of unconventional computing at the University of the West of England in Bristol, suggests that they influence the mycelium’s internal bioelectrical signals, which may form a kind of “language”. While a mycelium is not nor contains a nervous system, the mycelium shares much in common with these systems. Both have branched structures, strengthen or prune pathways as needed, and use some of the same amino acids to convey information.

Between mushrooms of the same species

Many fungi are sexual and must mate to reproduce. They send out pheromones and “sniff” other people’s pheromones, then push out those that seem attractive (depending on what the mushrooms are attracted to). Whenever two mycelia meet, they communicate to broker their relationship, which can range from fusion (to form a reproductive or non-reproductive partnership) to indifference to physical exclusion and even chemical antagonism. Each mated mycelium negotiates the physical dynamics of merging, and living in partnership thereafter.


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