Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Unseen Treasures of the Natural World

We were in Oxford, the city of Matthew Arnold’s ‘dreaming spires’, recently to talk about our research on building fresh values of citizenship and equity around the uses of new and emerging technologies at an international conference on Environmental Justice and Global Citizenship. For us, as with many other scholars, public understanding of, and engagement with, science and technology is a core element of citizenship.

At this conference, we heard a very stimulating presentation by Alison Pouliot on a crucial domain of the natural sciences that very few people have a thorough understanding of – fungi. Alison Pouliot, who is an independent photographer (the photos on this page are by her) and researcher, is our guest blogger for this edition. Her blog follows:


Dirt isn’t usually well regarded.  It’s the stuff that we spit on, dig up, wage wars on, bury toxins in, suck resources from and sweep from sight.  Yet the subterranean world of dirt, of soil, often symbolic of darkness and inertia, is in fact a living and astonishingly diverse part of our biosphere.  It is the realm of dynamic webs of relationships of a most curious kingdom of organisms - a kingdom that is little known and largely overseen.  And that is the Kingdom of Fungi. 

Like dirt, the larger implications of fungi rarely enter our minds despite them underpinning every terrestrial ecosystem on the planet.  For some of us, fungi are a delectable culinary treat or the psychedelic culprits that inspired Lewis Carol’s enchanted stories.  Indeed both are fungi.  But mushrooms represent only the fungal fruit body or reproductive structure.  The actual fungal ‘body’ or mycelium is a labyrinthine matrix of tubular filaments called hyphae, hidden beneath the soil.

It is the underground workings of fungal mycelium that provide a vast communicative network, connecting landscapes and kingdoms of organisms, creating soils through the breakdown of minerals and organic matter, enabling plants to access nutrients, maintaining soil fertility, hydrology, climate and sustaining human civilization.

Despite the obvious importance of fungi, they’ve been almost entirely overlooked in global conservation.  Fungi rarely attract the attention of the supposedly more charismatic flora and fauna that dominate the world’s RED lists.  But the survival of flora and fauna is inseparably intertwined with fungi.  For example, over 95 per cent of plant species including those on RED lists rely on mutually beneficial symbioses formed with their subterranean fungal partners.  It seems a rather gross oversight that charismatic organisms are protected while their vital partners down in the dirt are forgotten.

The great challenge for scientists, conservationists and advocates of
fungi is finding innovative and inspiring ways to communicate their  importance, not just for the health of ecosystems, but also for humanity.

The true nature of charisma goes beyond attractiveness to include the exceptional and the extraordinary.  It is perhaps through highlighting these qualities in fungi that their significance could be promoted.  Science has informed us of the astonishing intricacies, complexities and importance of fungi but other disciplines such as arts and aesthetics could provide further conduits to communication, to reconnecting people with their inspirational aspects.  It is indeed challenging to visualise this vast underground network of connective fungal mycelium but the fruit bodies, through their remarkable diversity of forms, bizarre habits and evanescent beauty, could be key in igniting curiosity and advocacy. 

Finding ways to communicate the importance of fungi could not only improve the potential for their conservation but also foster biophilia for all of nature.  Fungi are a fabulous metaphor for the interconnectivity of our world; for the linking of systems, of kingdoms, of timescales, of humanity with nature.  Their potential to catalyse public understanding of science remains largely unexplored.


We invite people to reflect on Alison’s post and join the conversation on expanding and extending public understanding of fungi.