Sometimes called “nature’s internet,” mycelium is the information superhighway of the forest or our natural world’s greatest decomposer and recycler. Beneath a hilly meadow in Eastern Oregon, represents the world’s largest organism, with one mycelial mat coming in at over 2,200 acres in size with more than 2,000 years of life under its belt.
In other words, mycelium is one heck of a life form!
But what exactly is mycelium, and why should you care?
Mycelium, the building block of fungi, is perhaps best understood as the root-like structure underlying the mushrooms you see peppering a forest floor.
In a more scientific sense, mycelium is a dense collection of hypha, which are typically filamentous, tubular structures one cell wall thick that grow and extend from the tip of the “tube,” into their surrounding environment to suck up water, break down compounds into food for themselves and plants, and connect the root structures of plants and trees into one massive, interconnected whole.
Sound a bit too ethereal to imagine? We can help.
Next time you’re in the forest, find some moist ground — maybe next to a tree’s roots — and start gently digging up the loose earth with your hand. Notice any white, thread-like filaments in the soil?
That’s mycelium, the vegetative growth of fungi that absorbs water, secretes enzymes to break down complex compounds into easily digestible food, and stores or shuttles nutrients and information along their dense network from one fungus/plant to another.
Depending on the species, that mycelium may one day form into a tasty gourmet mushroom, or power packed medicinal mushroom. Or it may, like the majority of fungi, stay in the ground filling an innumerable number of vital niches within the ecology of the forest.
Much More Than Food for Fungi
Though mycelium plays more roles than current science is able to explain, we have a pretty solid understanding of its role in a fungus’s life. In a simple sense, mycelium acts as an external stomach, extending into its immediate environment, excreting enzymes, breaking down complex compounds into simpler ones, then absorbing these simple, easily digestible compounds and using them to fuel further growth.
This process doesn’t just help the fungus, though.
The water and nutrients a fungus’s mycelium is able to extract and absorb, is oftentimes shared with plants in symbiotic, mycorrhizal associations that provide vital nutrients to plants that the plants would otherwise be unable to extract and digest. Mycelium itself is also an important food source for the soil invertebrates that churn the wheels of the forest’s nutrient cycle ever onward.
And though the science is still relatively young, mycelium has demonstrated an ability to shuttle nutrients from one plant to another, and some believe it may do so in a sentient way, deciding which plants or tree saplings the forest needs most, then shunting the necessary resources to these plants above others.
We could go on and on, but with this explainer as an introduction, it is now up to you how deep into the rabbit hole you’d like to dive. For starters though, may we kindly recommend looking at some photos of mycelium growing in a petri dish? It looks like a tree branch, cobweb, lighting, or dare we say, visual representation of the internet, no?