Are Mushrooms Alive?

We all remember learning at school that plants and animals are living things. But are mushrooms alive as well? And are they different from plants?

Mushrooms are alive because they are made out of different cells with specific roles. They can sense their environment and adapt in response to changes in it, and they also need food and a source of energy to survive. However, they are distinctly different from plants and animals, and they aren’t sentient beings like animals that can feel pain.

Photo of mushrooms growing in the wild

Are mushrooms plants or animals, or are they different?

Mushrooms are not plants, nor are they animals. Instead, they are classified as fungi, and they belong to their own separate kingdom. Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that include microorganisms such as yeasts, molds, rusts, mildews, and mushrooms. While all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms.

Fungi don’t make their food from the sun as plants do through photosynthesis. Instead, they are decomposers. They get their food from an enzymatic process, breaking down dead things such as leaves and plants. That’s the simple explanation of a slightly more complex process.

This means that they are also inherently different from animals. For example, animals eat food and digest it internally to get the nutrients they need. Mushrooms don’t have stomachs, so they also need to digest their food before passing it through their cell walls into the hyphae (their underground roots).

Although the anatomy of mushrooms is somewhat similar to plants, metabolically speaking, they are actually closer to us as humans. Like humans and animals, fungi breathe in oxygen and expel carbon. Plants, in contrast, do it the other way round by taking in carbon and expelling oxygen.

We can divide mushrooms into four categories based on how they obtain their nutrients. The four categories are: mycorrhizal, parasitic, endophytic, and saprotrophic.

Mycorrhizal mushrooms need plants to survive and will create a mutually beneficial relationship with their host plant. The plant provides the mushroom with sugar, and the mushroom gives water to its host. Some of these mushrooms are edible, for example, truffles and chanterelles.

Parasitic mushrooms feed off the insects, animals, or plants they take on as hosts. However, they don’t do anything for the hosts and will eventually kill them. Examples of these mushrooms are Chaga and Lion’s Mane which you find on the bark of trees.

Chaga mushroom resembling a piece of burnt charcoal growing off the bark of a tree
Chaga mushroom

Endophytic fungi are a bit of a mix of the previous two categories. While they act as parasites, they also produce the host with nutrients and protect it from disease. You will almost never knowingly encounter endophytic fungi as they rarely produce mushrooms and are difficult to see.

Saprotrophic mushrooms attach themselves to dead and decaying plant matter that they convert into nutrients. Many of the mushrooms we eat, such as shiitake and portobello mushrooms, are saprotrophic.

How are mushrooms born?

The time it takes for a mushroom to be born varies depending on the type of species and the environment. However, all mushrooms are born following the same reproductive cycle. The lifecycle of a mushroom goes as follows:

A mushroom can’t grow without a mature mushroom first releasing a spore. Spores are millions of minuscule cells, like seeds, that allow fungi to replicate and grow.

These spores float around and start dividing and producing hyphae once they land in a suitable habitat. Hyphae act like underground roots and penetrate the soil and absorb water and food.

When these hyphae meet, they start combining to form mycelium. Mycelium looks a bit like white fluff. When the environmental circumstances are favorable, such as the presence of food and the right temperature and humidity, buds will start forming from this mycelium. The mushroom that we see above ground is actually then just the fruit of the much bigger fungus that grows underground.

These buds grow towards the daylight and pop up from beneath the ground. When this happens, the mushroom is born. This little bud keeps growing into a proper mushroom, and eventually, the cap opens. At this point, the mushroom starts dropping millions of spores again, and the cycle continues.

How long do mushrooms live?

The lifecycle of mushrooms depends on the specific species. Mushrooms can live anywhere from a day or more, to a couple of years.

However, to really understand how long mushrooms can live, you need to distinguish between the mushroom “fruit” or cap that we see above ground and the more extensive underground mycelium (fungal network). The mushroom cap doesn’t live much longer after releasing its spores. Releasing these spores is their only purpose as a step in the bigger reproductive system of fungi.

The underground mycelium network survives long after the mushroom has died. Some can even exist continuously for thousands of years. Mushroom spores can remain dormant for years until the conditions are right, and then out of nowhere, a mushroom pops up. If you suddenly see mushrooms pop up in your garden after a rainstorm, it means the underground mycelium network was there all along. As soon as it dries up, the mycelium goes dormant again.

Are mushrooms alive when you eat them?

The answer isn’t as straightforward as you would expect. It depends a bit on where the mushroom is in its lifecycle. But this may leave you wondering, how do mushrooms die then?

Mushrooms die as soon as they fulfill their purpose of spreading spores. Once a mushroom has done this, it starts to die and eventually decompose.

However, when you pluck mushrooms before they’ve spread their spores, they start to die over time as they don’t have access to nutrients anymore. Remember, the mushroom cap that we eat is only a relatively tiny part of a whole organism. So once we’ve plucked the mushroom, another mushroom will grow from the underground mycelium, so the organism as a whole doesn’t die.

It’s also possible to clone mushrooms from a plucked store-bought mushroom as you can rely on the mycelium already on the fungi.

Mushrooms can also die if the atmosphere doesn’t have enough humidity (the amount of water vapor in the air). As mushrooms don’t have skin, they can quickly lose water to the atmosphere. If the humidity is too low, the cells in the mushroom start losing water faster than they can extract water, so the mushroom dries up and dies.

Mushrooms can also die if they run out of food. For example, if they were growing on a piece of wood, they might eventually run out of decaying material to feed on and die.

Conclusion

Mushrooms are alive – but not in the same way as plants or animals. They can sense their surroundings and adapt to changes, and need food to stay alive. However, they aren’t sentient creatures that feel pain.

When you eat a mushroom, you are actually eating the fruit of a much larger fungi network, which lives on long after you’ve finished your meal.

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