From animals nodding, dancing, squeaking, and bellowing to the invisible chemical signals emitted by plant leaves and roots, nearly all of Earth’s organisms communicate with one another in some way. What about fungi, though? Is it true that mushrooms are as lifeless as they appear, or is there anything more interesting going on beneath the surface?
How Do Fungi Communicate?
Nerves are highly specialized cells that are involved in almost all communication within and between multicellular creatures (or neurones). These send messages from one region of the body to another through a network called the nervous system. The nervous system’s “language” consists of different patterns of electrical potential spikes (also known as impulses) that enable creatures to notice and respond quickly to what’s going on in their environment.
Despite the lack of a nervous system, fungus appear to communicate by sending electrical impulses through thread-like filaments known as hyphae. The filaments create a mycelium, a thin web that connects fungal colonies in the soil. Animal nervous systems are strikingly comparable to these networks. It may be feasible to unpick the impulses by evaluating their frequency and intensity.
It has even been discovered that when the hyphae of wood-digesting fungi come into contact with wooden blocks, the firing rate of these impulses increases, raising the possibility that fungi use this electrical “language” to communicate information about food or injury with distant parts of themselves or hyphae-connected partners like trees.
It may be feasible to decipher and understand the languages used to communicate within and between organisms throughout the kingdoms of life by analyzing the frequency and intensity of the impulses.
How Is It Similar To Or Different From That Of Human Communication?
According to a new research carried out by Prof Andrew Adamatzky of the University of the West of England’s unconventional computing laboratory in Bristol, this ancient kingdom has its own electrical “language” that is far more intricate than previously assumed. Fungi may even utilize “words” to build “sentences” to interact with their neighbors, according to the study.
To investigate further, he looked into the patterns of electrical spikes produced by four fungal species: enoki, split gill, ghost, and caterpillar fungi.
He accomplished this by implanting microelectrodes into substrates colonized by their patchwork of hyphae threads, or mycelia.
“We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech. Possibly not,” said Adamatzky. “On the other hand, there are many similarities in information processing in living substrates of different classes, families and species. I was just curious to compare.”
These spikes often aggregated into trains of activity, mimicking vocabularies of up to 50 words, according to the study, which found that the distribution of these “fungal word lengths” closely resembled that of human languages.
Split gills, which grow on decaying wood and have fruiting bodies that look like undulating waves of densely packed coral, produced the most complicated “sentences” of all.
According to Adamtzky, the most plausible explanations for these waves of electrical activity are to preserve the fungus’ integrity – similar to how wolves howl to maintain the pack’s integrity – or to report newly discovered attractants and repellents to other areas of their mycelia.
“There is also another option – they are saying nothing,” he added. “Propagating mycelium tips are electrically charged, and, therefore, when the charged tips pass in a pair of differential electrodes, a spike in the potential difference is recorded.”
He emphasized that whatever these “spiking events” are, they don’t appear to be random.
Other scientists, however, would prefer to see more proof before accepting them as a form of communication. Other sorts of pulsing behavior in fungal networks have been seen before, such as pulsing nutrient transfer, which could be triggered by fungi foraging for food.
Dan Bebber, a member of the British Mycological Society’s fungal biology research committee and an associate professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter, said, “This new paper detects rhythmic patterns in electric signals, of a similar frequency as the nutrient pulses we found. Though interesting, the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic, and would require far more research and testing of critical hypotheses before we see ‘Fungus’ on Google Translate.”
In the study, which was published by Royal Society Open Science, professor Adamatzky said, “Assuming that spikes of electrical activity are used by fungi to communicate and process information in mycelium networks, we group spikes into words and provide a linguistic and information complexity analysis of the fungal spiking activity. We show that distributions of fungal word lengths match that of human languages.”
However, he also added: “we should not expect quick results: we are yet to decipher the language of cats and dogs despite living with them for centuries, and research into electrical communication of fungi is in its pure infant stage.”
Debates and Discussions
Although it is attractive to view electrical spikes in fungal mycelia as a language, there are other ways to consider the new discoveries.
Electrical pulses have a rhythm that resembles the movement of nutrients along fungal hyphae, suggesting that they may reflect activities within fungal cells that aren’t directly related to communication. As the organism searches for nutrients, the periodic pulses of nutrients and electricity may reveal patterns of fungal growth.
Of course, it’s still possible that the electrical signals have nothing to do with communication. Rather, the spikes in activity reported in the study could have been caused by charged hyphal tips passing through the electrode.
More research is certainly required before we can determine for sure what the electrical impulses recorded in this study represent. Electrical spikes may be a new mechanism for conveying information across fungal mycelia, according to the research, which has crucial implications for our understanding of the role and relevance of fungus in ecosystems.
These findings could be the first evidence of fungal intelligence, if not awareness. That’s a large “could,” but depending on the definitions used, the possibility exists, even if it appears to exist on time spans, frequencies, and magnitudes that humans cannot detect.
Disclaimer: This article has been fact-checked
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This post is tagged under science, communication, plant communication, fungal communication, mushrooms, Prof Andrew Adamatzky, University of the West of England, Royal Society Open Science, Dan Bebber, British Mycological Society, University of Exeter
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