Scientists Say: Mycelium

These rootlike networks allow fungi to eat, grow and even partner up with plants

Beneath these mushrooms — a kind of fungus — is a network of mycelia (inset). These mycelia secrete chemicals that break down dead matter into smaller molecules the fungus uses as food.

Sascha Vancauwemberg/500px/Getty Images; adapted by L. Steenblik Hwang

Mycelium (noun, “My-SEE-lee-um”)

Mycelium is a rootlike structure on a fungus. The plural of this word is mycelia. Fungi rely on mycelia to absorb food. They also need mycelia to reproduce and anchor themselves in place.

Mycelia allow fungi to decompose — or break down — dead or decaying material. That might include plants or animals. Decomposition is an important job in ecosystems. Mycelia do this by releasing chemicals that break down molecules in the dead matter. Those break down into smaller molecules. The mycelia then sop up those smaller compounds as food.

Anything left behind becomes food for other living things.

Mycelia support fungi in other ways, too. Reproduction, for instance. Some mycelia can fuse with the mycelia of another fungus. This allows sexual reproduction. (Sexual reproduction happens when two members of the same species combine their DNA to create offspring.) But fungi also can grow copies of themselves from fragments of their mycelia. This is an example of what’s known as asexual reproduction.

Mycelia also allow fungi and plants to team up. These partnerships help both species. Take a fungus called mycorrhizae. These fungi tangle their mycelia up with a plant’s roots. The mycelia help the plant absorb water or nutrients. This partnership may also protect the plant against disease or microplastic pollution. In return, the plant releases sugar, on which the fungi can snack.

Mycelia even play a role in communication. And not just between fungi. Mycelia can form vast, underground networks. These networks may extend throughout an entire forest. This helps plants and fungi trade chemical messages and nutrients.

In a sentence

Mycelia may network throughout a forest floor, allowing plants and fungi to transport nutrients and chemical signals.

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Katie Grace Carpenter is a science writer and curriculum developer, with degrees in biology and biogeochemistry. She also writes science fiction and creates science videos. Katie lives in the U.S. but also spends time in Sweden with her husband, who’s a chef.

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