THE THIRD MODE OF LIFE

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Mush­rooms may be con­spic­u­ous but they are the tip of the ice­berg. The body of the fun­gus is a vast fil­a­men­tous net­work of hy­phae hid­den be­low ground or in­side the body of the plant or an­i­mal it is feast­ing on.

Bi­ol­o­gists tra­di­tion­ally di­vide life into sin­gle- cell or mul­ti­cel­lu­lar or­gan­isms. Mark Fricker, a bi­ol­o­gist at Ox­ford Univer­sity, says this net­work rep­re­sents “a third mode of life”.

Like a brain, th­ese net­works are adap­tive. They re­spond to the en­vi­ron­ment, al­low­ing fungi to de­ploy nutri­ents where they are most needed, ex­plore re­sources, com­bat en­e­mies or make ur­gent re­pairs. They are na­ture’s most ef­fi­cient and re­silient net­work.

Fricker is de­vel­op­ing mod­els to learn how th­ese adap­tive prop­er­ties emerge and might be ap­plied to solve the prob­lems of man-made net­works such as rail lines.

CREDIT: STEVE AXFORD

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