Recently the idea that trees communicate via a “wood wide web” has been the subject of widespread media focus. The idea that trees communicate through a fungal mycorrhizal network seems to have been cast in doubt in mainstream news after a new study with a “counter-narrative,” reported Yahoo!, for example.
The article’s title suggests “trees may not have internet after all.” Still, if you read the article, the scientists involved say they “do not dispute the importance of mycorrhizal fungi in forests and ecosystems.” They state that trees don’t thrive where these mycorrhizal systems aren’t present. They even state, “there could very well be important effects of common mycorrhizal networks in forests.”
However, they want to find more peer-reviewed evidence to support the “extraordinary claims” made about these fungal networks. They want conclusive evidence that nutrients and signals are transmitted through the fungus’s mycelium, the web-like root structure, versus soil.
“Our intent is not to put a chill on research on common mycorrhizal networks and forest. If anything, I mean, we’re quite encouraged and inspired about the next generation of experiments,” says Alberta ecologist Justine Karst.
Karst says she believes the now-widely used “wood wide web,” coined by Nature magazine, is a misnomer. Perhaps there’s a better word, something like “wetware” web, to describe it?
“We call it the ‘wood wide web.’ I mean, everyone knows it by that name. But it’s a bit of a misnomer because it treats fungi as just these cables that are moving stuff around for trees. But it ignores that they’re individual organisms—they’re not just these passive conduits for information and resources. Fungi are trying to maximize their own growth and survival.”
Whatever phrase is used, the researchers are calling for more studies and not disputing the importance of the mycorrhizal networks. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the mainstream media’s titles, would you?
Suzanne Simard and the Wood Wide Web
One of the scientists whose pioneering work led to the phrase “wood wide web,” (not coined by her) is renowned forest ecologist Suzanne Simard from British Columbia. Her work inspired the “Tree of Souls” or Voices in the movie Avatar and captured public imagination about Mother Trees supporting the forests through the fungal networks. But it’s not just a feel-good science-fiction concept, and has gone mainstream. Understanding the complexity of this real-life concept could be critical to saving the planet from ourselves. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much time to get the memo.
Here’s a clip from Avatar about the Mother Tree:
Respecting the Forest/ Wood Wide Web
Given the importance of the oldest trees, it goes without saying that loggers might want to avoid cutting down Mother Trees to ensure the overall forest health. It’s a matter of seeing and respecting the complexity of the natural system. Common sense, perhaps? One can readily see how this might be at odds with our profits and bottom-line-driven world, despite the alarming state of the environment. While scientists debate, most people aside from politicians can probably agree that the natural world is vastly complex, interconnected, and worth protecting right now.
Defending the Mother Trees
Simard called for a “complexity science” approach to forest management. Protecting the older trees is, of course, an ancient concept long practiced by indigenous peoples. One example is the Menominee Forest in Wisconsin which remains profitable by protecting old-growth trees.
Recently, Simard defended her research after the review by one of her colleagues. Karst worked with Simard on studies, such as one that pointed out that human disturbance of fungal communities can hinder pine seedling growth.
In an interview with the CBC, Simard says the review “misses a major point” about her research, that studying tree interactions is “crucial for protecting forests.”
“The article really focuses on a very narrow part [of the research],” said Simard. “That doesn’t change the idea that forests are connected communicatively. And the fact that we need to look after these relationships, to tend to them and to care for them — that doesn’t change either.”
While the review suggests that nutrients might be moving through the soil rather than a mycorrhizal network, Simard says it’s probably both. We live in a complex ecosystem.
“I think what [the reviewers] are critiquing is that we’ve claimed that this mycorrhizal network is the only one in operation, and that’s not true,” Simard said. “All the papers acknowledge that all of those pathways exist together, and it makes sense that trees would have multiple ways of interacting, sharing and even competing for resources.”
Again, it all points to the need for more research, not less. Meanwhile, suppose there is any doubt that fungal pathways can serve as a means of communication. In that case, one might look at a recent Popular Science article, “Inside the lab that’s growing mushroom computers.”
Wetware Computers Made With Mushrooms
Perhaps other scientists will need to review the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Since 2001, they have been working to create computers composed of living systems, “wetware.” Yes, it’s reminiscent of the wood wide web concept, but here, scientists are making computers by attaching electrodes to many fungus and slime molds. There are no trees involved, but certainly, we can see that fungi are capable of incredible communication.
The systems can control robots and make computations more like an organic brain’s neural network.
“Mycelium with different geometries can compute different logical functions, and they can map these circuits based on the electrical responses they receive from it. ‘If you send electrons, they will spike,’ says director Adam Adamatzky. ‘It’s possible to implement neuromorphic circuits… We can say I’m planning to make a brain from mushrooms.'”
The researchers have worked with many types of fungi and found “it’s possible to implement basic logical circuits and basic electronic circuits with mycelium.”
Another study indicates Mushrooms have a form of vocabulary of around 50 words. (see video below). If the fungi could talk, what would they tell us about protecting the forests and the Mother Trees, do you suppose?
Video by MycoLyco about Mushrooms with Andrew Adamatzky: