the plot of life

Image: Mali Maeder


Fungal social networks are transforming science

Modern science was inaugurated, in a way, with the famous sentence of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): “the great book of nature was written in mathematical language and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures”. The most important thing in this definition is that nature is placed and given before us as a pure and passive object, waiting for our interpretive capacity.

It is an intellectual attitude that places science in a kind of ivory tower, the more efficient the more isolated and protected against expressions of the human spirit that are not part of its protocols. It is a worldview according to which we are the ones who speak and nature only responds, through our intelligence, which deciphers its signs.

But the glass in this dome is breaking. Plant intelligence (which is not the same as our intelligence in understanding plants) is an increasingly frequent term in the scientific vocabulary. In 2018, forestry engineer Peter Wohlleben published The secret life of trees, characterizing forests as “superorganisms with interconnections similar to those of ant colonies”. Much more than competitive processes in search of nutrients and light, trees have developed methods and signals that allow them to cooperatively protect themselves against predators.

The neurobiology of plants is a discipline inaugurated in 2006 by a group of authors, including Stefano Mancuso, who sought inspiration in the forest and had the term “nhe'éry” (pronounced nheeri) as his motto. Nhe'éry is how the Guarani people call the Atlantic Forest. The word means: where souls bathe. Furthermore, as Carlos Papá, filmmaker and leader of the Guarani people, explains, nhe'éry conveys messages through threads of words.

This indigenous elaboration converges with the scientific finding that genetic and biochemical mechanisms are insufficient to explain the sensitivity and responsiveness of plants to the environment. Plants have electrical and chemical systems that are in no way inferior to those that the evolutionary process of animals materialized in their brains.

But it is not just in plants and animals that these electrical and chemical systems are decisive components of their evolution. It is by a young British biologist, Merlin Sheldrake, who has authored a fascinating book for its rigor, clarity and, at the same time, poetry, which seeks in fungi the meaning of life and, perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say, the meaning of human life.

If you've watched the Netflix documentary fantastic fungus, will read Sheldrake's book with redoubled pleasure. The excellent translation by Gilberto Stram gave the original title in English (Entangled life) a version suitable for our language: the plot of life.

The dramatic component of the title does justice to a book that reads like a novel and above all to its subtitle: “how fungi build the world”. Fungi are protagonists. We are your products. They are within us and outside of us. They are the most important engineers of the ecosystems we depend on. Fungi actively sense and interpret the world, even if humans cannot know what it is like for fungi to sense and interpret the world.

It was they, five hundred million years ago, who allowed algae to leave their aquatic environments and occupy the hostile terrestrial environment, altering the chemical composition of what became our atmosphere, giving way to plants and, later, to animals.

The sheer extent of mycelia (the tangled branches that carry nutrients to where fungi direct them and account for their symbiotic processes with plants) is staggering: in the top ten centimeters of soil on the planet, mycelia occupy an area corresponding to half the surface of our galaxy. It is based on them that soils house no less than 25% of all species on Earth and 75% of all its carbon.

Sheldrake's book is an invitation to rethink some of the most important commonplaces of scientific thought. Firstly, it shows that, contrary to Galileo's image, nature has its own language whose closest analogy to what we know is the social network and not triangles, circles and other geometric figures.

Plants are connected by fungal social networks, which establish elaborate systems of symbiosis and cooperation. The fabric of life cannot be thought of only in terms of competition and conflict. Sheldrake dedicates a chapter of the book to “intimacy between strangers” to rethink the very notion of individuals, based on examples taken from the relationships between fungi, plants and animals.

A second commonplace that Sheldrake shakes is found in the chapter he devotes to "radical (from mikes, Greek for mushroom) mycology." Radical mycology is part of the do-it-yourself movement that emerged in the psychedelic scene of the 1970s. It is an expression of a fundamental feature of science in the XNUMXst century, which is citizen science. It counts on public, lay and amateur participation in the research. In the area of ​​fungi (and its visible expression, mushrooms) this participation is growing and the subject of important meetings.

Cultivation techniques in domestic spaces spread rapidly. One of the best-known promoters of this cultivation teaches people to train fungal strains capable of contributing to the regeneration of degraded environments or to the production of goods hitherto manufactured with polluting materials.

The INPA team, led by Noemia Ishikawa (an international icon in this area) and led by the indigenous Aldevan Baniwa, recorded, at the end of November, the Brilhos da Floresta, a set of bioluminescent fungi, used as illuminators for trails in São Gabriel da Cachoeira .

And it is exactly there that General Augusto Heleno (head of the Institutional Security Office of the Presidency of the Republic and one of the exponents of Brazilian fundamentalist fanaticism) has just ceded protected areas for gold and niobium exploration to mining. Anyone who can only see nature as an enemy to be devastated will never have eyes for the most important and promising riches of the forest, much less for the intelligence of plants and fungi.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Amazon: towards an economy based on the knowledge of nature (Elephant/Third Way).

Originally published on the portal UOL.


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