A Humongous Fungus Is Spreading Under Michigan

Posted: Nov 15 2018, 2:13pm CST | by , Updated: Nov 15 2018, 2:16pm CST, in Latest Science News


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Humongus Fungus is Spreading Under Michigan
Credit: James B. Anderson

A huge underground fungus that is one of the largest living organisms on the planet has turned out to be much bigger and much older than researchers originally believed.

In the late 1980s, researchers discovered a massive underground fungus in a forest on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. At the time, the individual fungus, Armillaria gallica, was thought to be around 1,500 years old, weighed over 100 tons and covered 37 acres of forest floor. Now, 25 years later, the organism has turned out to be far bigger and older than once believed.

A biology professor James B. Anderson, who first studied Armillaria gallica or honey mushroom 25 years ago, returned to the site in between 2015 and 2017 and took additional samples of the organism. He confirmed that the mushroom is at least 2,500 years old, weighs 400,000 kilograms and extends about 70 hectares. This makes Armillaria gallica one of the largest and oldest organims on Earth.

"I view these estimates as the lower bound," said Anderson. "The fungus could actually be much older. However, we think we have circumscribed its entire dimensions, which wasn't the case in 1992."

Armillaria gallica, nicknamed the “humongous fungus,” is one of the most devastating fungi that uses live wood as a source of nourishment and continues feeding on it even after it dies. Unlike other fungi, they are responsible for forest decline in many regions.

“It has a large role in decaying wood and in causing root disease.” Anderson said.

Armillaria gallica has attracted considerable interest in recent decades. Anderson was especially eager to sample the fungus and wanted to see if changes occurred in its genome over time. Anderson and his colleagues collected 245 samples during four visits to the site of the fungus over three years and examined them using current research and analytic techniques.

Researchers found that it has a very slow mutation rate, with very few genetic changes. There must be some mechanism by which the fungus protects itself from mutations but researchers are not sure how the process is kept in check. Otherwise, fungus evolve very fast.

“It could be an interesting point of comparison,” said Anderson. "Cancer is so unstable, mutates at a high rate and is prone to genomic changes, while A. gallica is a very persistent organism with few mutations."

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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