In a few days the mushroom season, highly appreciated in Spanish gastronomy. When we sit down to enjoy a plate of chanterelles, do we really know what we have in front of us?
Fungi are fascinating beings, unknown and dangerous alike. They have accompanied human beings since ancient times and have been a source of legends and stories. Even so, they remain an unknown kingdom due to their abundant number and great variety of habitats. At the same time, its varied effects and properties generate high interest. These are some curiosities that you may not know.
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When you think of the largest living being on the planet, elephants and blue whales probably come to mind. Others may think of the enormous sequoias of the American continent, trees that reach more than one hundred meters in height.
And yet, one fungus trumps them all.
He mycelium –root-like structure– of the fungus Armillaria ostoyae It covers an area of about 9 km² in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.
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It is also the oldest organism in the world, with an estimated age of about 2,400 years.
Before plants can reproduce in a piece of land, fungi are the first to colonize the hard, cold rock. This is possible thanks to its association with algae to form lichens.
This unique association is directly responsible for the first forms of life on the hard rocky substrate. In lichens, the organism feeds thanks to photosynthesis carried out by the algae, while the fungus provides protection against desiccation and solar radiation.
Fungi seem to have their own awareness of their environment. They are capable of waiting for months or years for the right conditions for their development to occur.
On many occasions, a degree of temperature or the presence of a host can be the difference between developing or continuing to wait for its moment. This characteristic highlights its unique character as a biological kingdom.
Some have been estimated 611,000 terrestrial species of fungiof which only just over 43,000 have been catalogued.
This would mean that approximately 93% of fungi remain undiscovered.
Other authors estimate much larger numbers of this diversity (Hawksworth estimated 1.5 million species).
From hot deserts to the icy poles, through jungles, mountains and even seas, fungi are present throughout the planet.
One of the most curious cases would be in certain marine fungi, quite unknown. They are awarded important functions in the food chain as decomposers of plant substances.
Fungi may play a role bioremediator. This means that they have the ability to produce certain substances capable of destroy or accumulate and eliminate such problematic materials as oil, sanitary waste and even nuclear waste from the environment.
Research carried out on various fungi has shown that their role as decontaminants is highly effective, since the degradation of these materials would otherwise be complicated and expensive.
In this sense, Mexican scientists have managed to use fungi to degrade household waste such as diapers, using oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus).
Since our species began to paint in caves, it left evidence of its relationship with mushrooms. The oldest data we have of this interaction dates back to the Bronze Age.
The mural of Pascuala Jungle (Cuenca), contains curious images of what look like mushrooms, very similar to Psilocybes
We do not know what our ancestors thought about mushrooms or what level of knowledge they had about them, but they did leave evidence of their presence from the first moment.
We know that fungi do not act the same in all human beings. The same mushroom can generate different effects on different people.
For many, mushrooms are indigestible in low numbers, while for others, an excess of edible mushrooms can cause serious digestive problems.
Not much is known about the mechanisms of action of fungi, but some studies point to their influence on the microorganisms present in our body.
Edible mushrooms are considered by many specialists as medicinal food.
In addition to proteins (present up to 40%), minerals and fiber, Its fat content is very lowwhich makes them perfect foods for low-calorie diets.
Another point in favor of mushrooms is that food allergies due to mushroom consumption are rare, few cases have been reported.
Another fungus known as reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) It is capable of counteracting the negative effects of allergies when used as an extract.
Fungi are famous for being great antibiotics, as is the case with Penicillium. Others, such as Ganoderma lucidum, are being investigated for their possible action against tumors.
But many others have among their properties being powerful antioxidants, being able to reduce blood cholesterol and reduce blood glucose levels.
These particular organisms are a mystery in themselves, which makes them feared, studied and even revered. They were here long before us and, without a doubt, will be here long after human beings disappear from Earth.
*Sergio Fuentes Antón is professor of Didactics of Experimental Sciences, University of Salamanca