Entangled Life: Worldbuilders will support innovative fungal research and conservation

Merlin Sheldrake shares his plans for the collection’s legacy

Fungi make up one of life’s kingdoms – as broad and busy a category as “animals” or “plants” – and provide a key to understanding our planet. Yet fungi have received only a small fraction of the attention they deserve. Our ignorance is easily summarised: the best estimate suggests that there are as many as 6 million species of fungi on the Earth – as many as 10 times the estimated number of plant species – meaning that, at most, a mere 8% of all fungal species have been described. Of these, only 358 have had their conservation priority assessed on the IUCN red list of threatened species, compared with 76,000 species of animal and 44,000 species of plant. Fungi, in other words, represent a meagre 0.2% of our global conservation priorities.

There’s a good reason why so much work goes into assessing the conservation status of different species: from the point of view of policymakers, if nothing’s under threat, there’s nothing to protect. But despite their minimal presence in our lists of endangered species, we know of many threats to fungi. We are destroying the planet’s fungal networks at an alarming rate. Large swathes of the fungal kingdom are intimately associated with plants, and so what kills plants – deforestation for instance – also kills fungi. Fungi are subject to additional pressures, from ploughing to the overuse of fungicides and fertilisers. Based on current trends, more than 90% of the Earth’s soil will be degraded by 2050. Of the grand total of six medicinal fungi that have had their conservation status assessed by the IUCN, one is listed as vulnerable due to overharvesting. Another species (Laricifomes officinalis, or Agarikon), found to have powerful activity against a range of viruses including herpes and flu, is listed as endangered, threatened with extinction by the destruction of the forests it inhabits.

As things stand, most environmental legislation and international assemblies, such as the convention on international trade in endangered species or the convention on biological diversity of the United Nations, together with many large international NGOs, refer to the conservation of flora (plants) and fauna (animals). Adding a third “F”, funga, to the list would write this neglected kingdom of life into conservation and agricultural policy frameworks, and unlock crucial funding for mycological research, surveys and educational programmes. Groundbreaking work by the Chilean NGO the Fungi Foundation suggests this approach is effective. Thanks to its efforts, Chile is the first country to require by law that fungi be included within environmental impact assessments, and is on its way to writing the recognition of the third “F” into its constitution. 5% of the proceeds from this NFT sale will support the work of the Fungi Foundation. 

Together with Giuliana Furci, the founder of the Fungi Foundation, and César Rodríguez-Garavito of the New York University School of Law, I am working on the Fauna Flora Funga Initiative, in an effort to advance legal and policy protections for fungi in international conservation frameworks and in national conservation frameworks around the world. Some of the proceeds of this sale will support my ongoing involvement in this exciting project, as we work to build on the success of the Fungi Foundation.  

In addition, proceeds from these NFTs will support my work with the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (Spun), an organisation advocating for soil ecosystems, and leading a massive global sampling effort to create open-source maps of Earth’s fungal networks. These maps will help chart the properties of underground ecosystems, such as carbon sequestration hotspots, and document new fungal species able to withstand drought and high temperatures. A deeper knowledge of these dynamic living systems will support conservation projects and policies that aim to halt their destruction and encourage their recovery, besides driving much-needed innovation in underground ecosystem science and technology.

The final portion of the proceeds will support my research into the decentralised problem-solving ability of fungal networks. Fungi intricately manage their sprawling, shape-shifting bodies and perform astonishing sensory feats. A single fungus must sniff out sources of nutrients, proliferate within them, mingle with crowds of other microbes, absorb the nutrients, and distribute them around its rambling network of a body. Information must be integrated across an immense number of growing tips, which at any one moment can be strung between several different plants, and sprawl over tens of metres. Plants and fungi engage in sophisticated trading strategies, striking compromises and resolving dizzyingly complex trade-offs. How fungi are able to perform these activities remains a puzzle: the flow of substances around fungal networks is too slow to allow the rapid responses that have been observed. 

Electrical activity is a faster and potentially more reliable way for fungi to sense and integrate stimuli. It has long been known that animals use electrical impulses to communicate between different parts of their bodies. Neurones – the long, electrically excitable nerve cells that co-ordinate animal behaviour – have their own field of study: neuroscience. Although electrical signalling is normally thought of as an animal talent, animals aren’t alone in producing electrical impulses. Analogous phenomena occur in plants, algae, and bacteria. The basis of an electrical signalling system was described in wood-rotting fungi in the mid 1990s but has received little attention since. Together with my collaborators at the Vrije University and AMOLF, Amsterdam, I will deploy techniques from neuroscience to study information processing in fungal networks with a view to better understanding the nutrient flows and critical ecological processes that they manage. 

Fungal networks have long sustained and enriched life on our planet. It’s time they receive the attention they deserve.