Steve Manthorp wanted me to call this 'Of Mycelium and Men' and it's such a good title I have shamelessly thieved the idea. The posting is prompted by two things - the announcement of a project to study the evolutionary history of fungi by the US National Science Foundation and my recent reading of Jeff Vandermeer's 'City of Saints and Madmen'.
The research project first - it looks at zygomycetes which are believed to be among the first terrestrial fungi forms and perhaps a critical factor in the development of land plants. Zygomycetes are filamentous molds similar to those we see sometimes on old bread or fruit that is starting to rot. Anyhow, we don't know much about them - Jason Stajich, an associate professor of plant pathology and microbiology at the University of California, Riverside, explains:
"Despite zygomycetes' critical ecological roles and importance to human civilization, they remain understudied and their evolutionary relationships are still not well understood," Stajich said. "This is likely a result of some of the difficulty in culturing many of the species, but also because, in general, too few researchers have been studying them."
The research will examine the symbiotic and parasitic relationships between these early forms of fungi and the plants and animals on which they host - and hosted. And it's here that the 'City of Saints and Madmen' came to mind. the book - a collection of short stories set in a fictional city called Ambergris - has at its heart the uneasy relationship between man and mushrooms. The city is a human settlement placed in the heart of an older, grander and more complex city built by super-evolved mushroom-like humanoids, the 'Grey Caps'.
Perhaps, by design or accident, Vandermeer hit on a strange truth - fungi are an overlooked essence in the development of sophisticated life but we see the myco-world as parasitic, feeding on death and decay rather than creating and enhancing. So our response to the mushroom is fear and repulsion:
Manzikert found the gray cap repellent, resembling as it did, he is quoted as saying, "both child and mushroom", and if not for his fear of retaliation from a presumed ruling body of unknown strength, the Cappan would have run the native through with his sword."
In a weird way Vandermeer's fantasy echoes the research Prof. Stajich and his colleagues are undertaking:
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-09-evolutionary-history-fungi.html#jCp
...by resolving these earliest branches in the fungal genealogy scientists can study what the likely characteristics of ancestral fungi were, and determine what traits emerged first and were necessary as part of the transitions of life from aquatic to terrestrial ecosystems.
Perhaps, from out of all this we get a glimpse of a future mushroom world!