Very few view fungi as essential to human life. If asked to consider this diverse kingdom, most would only answer with whether they enjoy mushrooms on their pizzanotwithstanding the fact that there are at the very least 1 million species of fungi thought to outnumber vascular plants by a ratio somewhere between six to one and thirty-three to one. Even so, only 100,000 species of fungi are known to exist while mycologists continue to discover 1000 new species every year. Most notable was the recent discovery of a single honey mushroom congregation thought to weigh 605 tons and cover 2200 acres of Oregon’s Strawberry Mountains. If considered a single organism, this 2000-year-old fungus would have the largest surface area in the world (Stephenson 2010). As a result of this diversity, fungi form a complex and captivating clade that supports a large portion of Earth’s life.
Fungi make up an intriguing and esoteric kingdom; bioluminescent mushrooms offer a perfect example. Of the 71 glowing mushroom types, Armillaria mellea (honey mushrooms) comprise the most common North American variety. All species emit a green to blue light that differs
significantly by geographic location; Australian varieties tend to shine more brightly than their North American relatives (Isaacs 2010). Because the light producing luciferin molecules in these different species are not chemically identical, it is probable that each fungus evolved bioluminescence independently (Stephenson 2010). The reason for this evolutionary adaption is unknown; however, it is possible the extra light may attract spore-spreading insects much like how bees relocate pollen (Isaacs 2010). Originally termed “foxfire” by Scandinavians, societies often utilized these mushrooms as light sources before the advent of the first light bulbs. Historical reports reveal that bioluminescent mushrooms were used as trail-markers as well as locators on soldiers’ helmets during World War I (Stephenson 2010).
Though people have found fungi to be advantageous in many ways, their role in ecosystems have been equally crucial. Entire termite and ant colonies depend upon cultivating certain fungi for survival. In fact, only 25 percent of the world’s termite species rely on protists and bacteria to break down cellulose; the remaining 75 percent grow fungal “gardens” specifically for the purpose. The process begins when worker termites ingest leaves or wood and deposit the macerated plant tissue as fecal pellets. Fungal mycelium then inoculate the pellets and break down the plant material until it can be digested as a suitable food source. A large termite colony typically contains 90 pounds of this myceliumeight times the mass of all its termites (Stephenson 2010). On occasion, the termites even bring mycelium cultures outside to produce mushrooms! Leaf-cutter ants, on the other hand,...