Fungi with a French accent?

You don’t know, or you don’t want to know … Microbes, centipedes, worms and moles. The earth beneath our feet is teeming with life that we usually don’t notice.

But there’s a lot more going on underground. Networks of fungi, with which plants and trees exchange not only nutrients but also information, have existed far longer than people have even been thinking about them. These thread-like systems of mycelium spread beneath the forest floor, connecting the roots of trees that are very far apart. 

Scientists have now very modernly called this ancient network the Wood Wide Web or Earth’s Natural Internet. Now, a lot of people who have stayed close to their roots in nature have known for a long time that everything on this earth is interconnected. Finally it has now also been scientifically proven and is no longer relegated to the realm of the spiritual. 

Fungal internet

Did you know that fungi, like our own nerve cells, communicate with each other by means of electrical signals? They have their own language with a unique vocabulary. Aha! And of course we’d love to hear it!

Science found that a mathematical analysis of the structure of these signals shows that they occur in sequences similar to the sequence of words in human languages. Different types of fungi generate ‘sentences’ of varying complexity. On the inside, language people like us are excited: “how beautiful and wonderful”.

Fungi are special creatures in this world: they colonise soil, food and organisms. They form extremely fine threads, leave minuscule traces and make impressive fruiting bodies. They cause disease and produce antibiotics. And apparently, they can also transmit electrical signals as language. 

Plants communicate with each other through nature’s fungal internet. We already knew that fungi are fantastic: we owe beer, soy sauce and penicillin, for example, to mushrooms. These fascinating organisms also enable plants to exchange information and nutrients through a kind of social network, avant la lettre.

Communication via electrical signals  

Andrew Adamatzky of the University of the West of England in Bristol has examined these electrical impulses and discovered that they are a means of communication. 

“There is early evidence that fungi do indeed respond to mechanical, chemical and visual stimuli by altering the pattern of their electrical activity”, he explains.

To decipher their language, he studied the signals of four different fungal species. These are:

  • the Australian ghost fungus, a poisonous mushroom that glows in the dark; 
  • the edible mushroom enoki, which is mainly grown in Asia but also appears in Europe; 
  • the common topiary, which grows on deciduous and coniferous trees;
  • the pop cordyceps, a parasitic sac fungus.

Differences between fungal species

How did Adamatzky work? First, he measured these electrical signals with electrodes, which he stuck either directly into the fungus or into the substrate in which the fungus grew. 

He discovered that each species has its own recognisable pattern of communication. They have their own accents and dialects. They generate peaks of electrical activity at different distances and strengths. “These are similar to the activity of nerve cells; they also give off signals at different times, in different strengths and in series”, explains Adamatzky. “I noticed that the spikes, I call them spikes, often appear in a series.”

The big difference with nerve cells is that they ‘fire’ signals within a few seconds. In fungi, this process seems to proceed more smoothly. “The duration of the peaks varies between 1 and 21 hours”, the researcher reports. “Intervals between peaks vary between about thirty minutes to several hours, our nervous system is never that quiet.”

Eavesdropping on mushrooms

Adamatzky used mathematical formulas to analyse whether there is a structure behind the sequence of the ‘slow motion signals’ of fungi. The succession of spikes in the electrical activity of the fungi are like syllables in words; he analysed the length of the words and the complexity of the resulting ‘sentences’. The result: “The distribution of word lengths communicated by fungi is similar to that of human languages.”

According to the analysis, the fungi have an astonishingly large ‘vocabulary’: “The cactus and the ghost fungus use a maximum of 50 words”, says Adamatzky. “The split leaf generates the most complex sentences, followed by the Cordyceps militaris.”

Further research in its infancy

In future studies, Adamatzky wants to analyse as many other mushroom species as possible and also to try to detect possible grammatical constructions. As human beings, we are often focused on ourselves, even though there are these complex structures and forms of communication all around us! “We still, for example, haven’t even deciphered the language of cats and dogs, even though we’ve lived with them for centuries.”

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