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280 days of Urbpandemonium #99

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This little mushroom has a lot going for it. For starters, it has a long functional life--the average mushroom produces spores for about 2 weeks before turning into a pile of goo, or drying into bootlaces. This one is a tough customer, resisting rotting or drying, surviving changes in weather and humidity, stopping the production of spores in dry times, resuming when it gets wet again. You can find it basically year round in the places where it occurs.

That's another thing, it's found basically everywhere. Anywhere on earth that it gets above freezing long enough for spores to get in and start growing. The fungus feeds on lignin, a very durable component of plant cell walls that few other organisms try to break down. Wood, straw, hay bales, cheap paper (not the expensive bleached stuff--that has the lignin chemically removed) all contain it. The fungus is also known to invade animal tissues, including humans, though what it specifically is feeding on in these cases is not clear to me. Humans in the tropics feed on the mushrooms in turn, though field guides to temperate species list it as inedible. The only person I know who tried some (at a market in Indonesia) found them to be rubbery and flavorless.

The most fun fact about the split gill mushroom Schizophyllum commune* of course revolves around its sex life. In fact, I use it as an example in my mushroom classes, when describing how different fungal reproduction is from plants or animals. Say you found yourself stranded alone on an island, tasked with repopulating the earth or whatever. If one other person arrived, there is just about a 50% chance that you and this other person with have compatible reproductive types that can result in offspring, on account of our crude binary sexes. Now compare that to split gill: there are more than 28,000 different kinds of mating types, meaning the chances that any two mycelium that encounter each other will be of different types are much greater.

(I blogged about this fact before, and the comment thread is golden)

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* "Splintered leaf; Shared"

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The Urban Pantheist

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