Imagine for a moment: you're walking in a forest. It's a cool, early autumn day. The air is wet and tastes of rotting wood. You tread softly, the earth beneath your feet matted with decomposition. As you walk the ground springs back, exhaling like rising bread dough.
Nothing too startling here.
But just below the surface, things are starting to get interesting. Just below the surface, a vast web of fungal threads deconstruct your presence, streaming real-time data to information processors a hundred miles away. These signals will propagate further still, node to node, forest to forest, tracing a network of organic nanowires to the ocean. A thousand miles away, even a computer novice could geolocate you with a cursory search of the biogenic data archives. Timestamp the compressional force your boots exert on the ground. Even your microbiome signature- a silent breadcrumb trail- would be instantly downloadable.
You may be scratching your head at this bizarre state of affairs. But really, it's quite simple. You see, since we upgraded the planet's decomposition engine to serve as a ubiquitous wifi, every motion is recorded, calculated, and integrated seamlessly into the network's ever-expanding intelligence. Nothing is a secret anymore. But why should anything be?
While we typically think mushrooms when we hear the word fungi, mushrooms are actually only a small part of the fungal life cycle. Mycelia are the more permanent, albeit invisible, body of these mysterious creatures. These thread-like, often microscopic structures thrive in organic-rich topsoil where they exude enzymes that decompose plant tissue. Some mycelia integrate symbiotically with plants, feeding roots the nutrients they mine during decomposition in exchange for sugar. Often just a single cell thick, mycelia penetrate the soil's smallest cracks and crevices to access nutrients. Because of their microscopic slenderness, mycelia can pack a phenomenal amount of surface area into a small space. Current estimates indicate there can be more than eight miles of mycelia in a cubic inch of soil!
But mycelia are far more to a forest than an expansion of the root system. Mycelia create a conduit of carbon, nutrients and chemical information that connects distant trees, and often, many species. They quite literally represent a web of life, a network that integrates entire ecosystems.
Scientists and science fiction writers alike have been inspired by the networked properties of mycelia. My favorite example of this from the science fiction realm is Kathryn Kramer's short story "Am I Free To Go?", which plays with the concept of hijacking fungal networks to serve our own purposes. In this biopunk-inspired Orwellian tale, an economically decaying upstate New York county builds a prison to generate revenue. When the county passes a prison privatization bill that suspends civil liberties, the police are charged to start finding prisoners. Our protagonist Margaret, a middle-aged suburban housewife, describes some of the high-tech surveillance that permeates her quasi-police state. This includes a "bio-monitoring system" supposedly deployed to determine when people having hunting licenses. Folks who fire guns without proper licenses are arrested and microchipped, after which they are easily trackable via bio-monitoring:
"…the chip is injected between the shoulder blades. If they escape, they can be tracked even if they hide in the forest. Ironically, the denser the forest, the better the bio-monitoring system works because of the density of the fungal mats in the ground, and because there are so many trees to act as antennas."
Following her own arrest and brief stint in prison, Margaret, a modern lady with a predilection for high-tech botany, decides to fight the state in a new way: by hacking the bio-monitoring system.She starts by building a grassroots (no pun intended) wifi network on her front lawn.
"I sprinkled genetically engineered fungi I'd ordered from a start-up in Oregon that replaced the soil fungi the backhoe had scraped off, thereby making for healthier soil, and also created a powerful wi-fi zone that covers my whole yard, taking advantage of the networked properties of fungal mats, using nearby trees as antennae. It is more than a fungal wi-fi network, really.It's also a data storage medium, cloud computing but without fickle corporations—anarchist street tech used for circumventing Internet shutdowns by oppressive governments. It makes my high-end computer hardware run a lot faster, though it's got an interesting trickle of traffic through my fiber-optic connection."
One she's hacked into the county network, Margaret begins obsessively tracking public officials, particularly law enforcement, and backing up all of her data into the "fungal cloud":
"I connected all that [the fungal network] to my machine's security, such that if they [the police] kicked in my door….all trace of this operation would have fled into the yard before they were halfway up the stairs."
Pretty awesome story concept, but getting back to the science here. Will we one day be able to "hack nature" as Kramer envisions, creating living networks to transmit our own information, even act as a surveillance system? Mycologist Paul Stamets believes we will. Stamets believes mycelia create networks that act in a manner analogous to our digital networks. He envisions a future in which we harness what he calls the "cellular intelligence" of mycelia by tapping into their natural networking capabilities.
"I see the mycelium as the Earth's natural Internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate." Stamets writes in his book, Mycelium Running. "Through cross-species interfacing, we may one day exchange information with these sentient cellular networks. Because these externalized neurological nets sense any impression upon them, from footsteps to falling tree branches, they could relay enormous amounts of data regarding the movements of all organisms through the landscape."
Though our closest evolutionary neighbors, fungi differ markedly from animals in body form, life cycle and ecology. Take humans as an example. We have a central nervous system that relays information throughout our body, passing down commands in a hierarchical fashion. We have discrete organs that digest our food and perform our bodily functions. We have a finite size, ordained partially by genes and partially by our environments. Overall, you might say that we humans have evolved along a path of internalization and compartmentalization. Virtually all animals, certainly all that we have domesticated and spread across the planet, share these general features.
You might say fungi have evolved in the opposite direction. They propagate in a networked fashion, as a series of bi-directionally branching nodes. They have no division of organs (with the exception of reproduction) and no command center to guide their growth. Because of their "decentralized" growth, fungi have no Achilles heel: no single, vital organ. Just as knocking out a single server doesn't eliminate the entire Internet, killing a part of a mycelium network doesn't necessarily damage the whole. Because of their non-hierarchical structure, mycelia-like our digital internets- can essentially expand forever. It's no accident, then, that the world's largest organism is a 2,400 acre fungus in eastern Oregon.
Mycelia live an externalized existence: each individual thread is in intimate contact with its environment. Mycelia are constantly sensing their environment and relaying information on soil moisture, nutrients, even bacterial pathogens, throughout the network, exuding enzymes and antibiotics in response. Because mycelia stream "data" from millions of branches throughout the entire web, they are able to create rapid and coordinated responses to environmental perturbations. Stamets argues this allows mycelia to make collective "decisions" that promote the health of the entire forest- for example, cutting a sick or dying tree off from the network. One could argue this "cellular intelligence" is no less powerful than the digital intelligence created by internet data transfer. And perhaps far more. While our internets are limited by the hardware that sustains them, the "hardware" of a mycelium is encoded by genes. And genes can evolve in response to their environment.
Social media networks and fungal networks share more than a passing resemblance: both convey information and resources across disparate communities.
So perhaps I've convinced you mycelia are nature's closest biological analog to an internet. Whether fungal networks are something we can actually tap into remains to be seen, but there is, I believe, hope in some of the ecological partnerships mycelia have already built. Mycelia represent on of the few natural means of interspecies communication. Research in old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest shows that mycelium can bidirectionally budget carbon and nitrogen amongst different species in an ecosystem. By acting as resource partitioners, mycelia have the unique ability to help maintain biological diversity within ecosystems. Are all the trees in a forest "users" of a fungal internet, sharing resources and information the way we share on Amazon and Reddit?
Human uses for a mycelia Internet
Perhaps the most obvious use for a fungal internet would be to extend our current networks. While a biological internet may be of little value in modern, tech-rich cities, this could be an incredible boon for people working or living in remote locations. As Kramer points out, a fungal network will be stronger wherever fungi are most abundant. In other words, in nature. People living in rural locations or developing countries could use fungal networks to rapidly access information from across the world, reducing the information barriers that currently exist across socioeconomic boundaries.
Even more important for humanity's long-term prospects is the potential for a fungal internet to monitor natural ecosystems. Imagine if we could stream real time data, on everything from moisture to radiation levels to pathogen abundance, across an entire forest. I could see this becoming a powerful tool for one future human activity in particular: terraforming new worlds. Fungi were the earliest organisms to colonize the land on Earth. Because of their ability to mine rocks for nutrients and begin soil forming processes, fungi will almost certainly become an important component of any exoplanetary terraforming strategy. Imagine the ruddy surface of Mars, seeded with mycelium-producing fungi. These fungi would form a thin, biotic blanket over an otherwise barren landscape, producing and retaining moisture, accelerating rock weathering and releasing nutrients. Specialized sensors installed across the mycelia network would read chemical signals and convert these into digital information, keeping the terraforming scientists updated on everything from soil nutrients to surface oxygen concentrations.
The mycelia internet is already present on earth, we just haven't learned to tap into it yet. Perhaps once we figure out how, we'll finally be ready to expand into the stars.