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When words like 'complex machines' and 'ingenious engineers' are used to describe something, the last thing that comes to mind is the drab mushroom, the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus. But that is exactly what Emilie Dressaire, professor of experimental fluid mechanics from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, is calling them after discovering that these amazing toadstools possess the capability of creating their own microclimate.
Scientists had always believed that like some plants, mushrooms were passive in their reproduction and depended completely on external wind currents to distribute their spores. But given that they are normally found under forest logs or in small moist crevices - places that do not get much wind - there was always the question of how they somehow managed to proliferate so rapidly. Now thanks to the results of a study done on Oyster and Shitake mushrooms, two researchers have finally uncovered their secret.
According to UCLA's Marcus Roper and his colleague Emilie Dressaire, who presented their findings on November 25th at a conference in Pittsburgh, the mushroom takes control of its environment by first releasing water vapor through evaporation, thereby increasing the moisture in the surrounding air.
This has two consequences - Thanks to the energy used in releasing the heat, it helps keep the mushroom cool and moist. But even more importantly, it creates pockets of convection currents or a circular wind pattern around the toadstool. The ingenious fungus uses these self-created wind currents to distribute its spores to surrounding areas to germinate. And though the tests were conducted on only two species, the scientists believe that all fungus have this capability.
If that is not impressive enough, a separate study conducted by Harvard University mycologist Ann Pringle, unveiled that some fungi actively shoot spores out at high speeds. This enables millions of the microscopic single-celled seeds to spread over large areas and proliferate.
While Dressaire and Roper's study involved some complex observation with lasers and high-speed filming, this amazing phenomenon can be easily seen in the woods at night, when spores released in great big clouds are visible to the naked eye, using just a flashlight.
Often referred to as the 'dark matter of biology,' because of how little is known about them, mushrooms or fungi are not plants. They have no chlorophyll and hence have no capability of making their own food. Instead, they absorb nutrients from their surrounding environment, which ranges from the bottom of the ocean to the middle of a desert! In fact they are so ubiquitous, that scientists don't even know how many species there are - estimates range anywhere from 600,000 to 6 million!
Resources: dailymail.co.uk, huffingtonpost.com, science.NASA.gov