Owen Reiser was running through the nature preserve around his college campus when he spotted some “crazy looking mushrooms.” He wondered what it would be like to see them grow.
Reiser, a biology student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, knew how to reveal the life and death of the mushrooms—a time-lapse video. He had captured changing fall leaves using this technique and hoped it would work for mushrooms, too. “My brother and I have always made silly videos,” says Reiser. “We've always had cameras in our hands.”
To create the time-lapse of the life cycles of mushrooms, Reiser and his brother built a light-controlled box that was roughly two feet by three feet to accommodate decaying logs, leaves and other organic material that the sprouting mushrooms made their home. When Reiser spotted young mushrooms in the forest, he carefully relocated them to this special box, which included a sliding door and space for his DSLR camera to capture the action.
Reiser hadn’t filmed mushrooms before and it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “At first, I was failing like crazy,” says Reiser. “Maybe one out of every three was a success, but slowly I started getting better at it.”
Reiser filmed the mushrooms in his special light-controlled box anywhere from two and five days, capturing an image every eight minutes for the fastest growing mushrooms, and an image every sixteen minutes for the slower mushrooms. The 10,000 or so pictures put together reveal a dramatic life cycle that usually goes unseen.
But what Reiser captured in his video is only part of the mushroom’s story. Mushrooms are not a plant—they are part of a fungus, much of which is hidden underground. Fungi are made of mycelium, a network of fine white filaments akin to the roots of a plant. The mushroom is just the fruiting body, similar to an apple on a tree. But unlike plants that grow through photosynthesis, fungi get their food from digesting organic material. That is why they are often spotted on rotting wood and decaying plants.
Instead of using seeds to spread, mushrooms release spores from gills tucked beneath their caps. A single mushroom can release up to a billion spores in its short life. Once a spore finds a moist, digestible home, it germinates and grows tiny white fibers called hyphae. The hyphae combine to create mycelium, which then sprout the fruiting mushrooms. Once a mushroom releases its spores, its job is done, and it decomposes. Because mushrooms break down organic material into digestible nutrients, they benefit the entire ecosystem.
Mushrooms have a short life cycle—most live only a few days. “They're ephemeral, they only pop up now and again, and then they're gone,” says David Hibbett, a mycologist—someone who studies fungi—at Clark University. He says it’s a quality that makes mushrooms both fun and challenging to study.
Hibbett has dedicated his career to understanding fungi and their incredible diversity. He uses DNA sequencing to untangle their complex evolution, something that’s still largely a mystery to scientists. He says mushrooms are important not just for scientists, but as cultural symbols, too. When he saw a 95-million-year-old mushroom preserved in cretaceous amber, Hibbett says “it was like a religious experience.”
At first scientists weren’t sure how to categorize mushrooms—their biology was puzzling and was not quite like a plant. Since then, professional and amateur mycologists have described tens of thousands of fungi species, but there are likely many left to discover.
The field of fungi research has boomed in the last few decades, with some hoping mushrooms could be used for everything from fortifying buildings to breaking down toxic waste. Psilocybin—the psychedelic compound that puts the “magic” in magic mushrooms—has been used to address mental health conditions. Last year, Johns Hopkins launched the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, which is dedicated to studying the funky fungi.
Hibbett largely credits the boom in fungi research and the recent surge in public interest in mushrooms to citizen science projects and local clubs. “It's the amateur community that is not just learning taxonomy, but they're actually creating new knowledge,” says Hibbett. It’s “one of the best things that has happened to our science.”
The New York Mycological Society is one of many clubs around the world creating and sharing mushroom knowledge. Sigrid Jakob, a club member with a background in philosophy and photography, jumped into the mycological world and learned how to identify mushrooms species from home.
“I have my own DNA sequencing lab and we find a lot of new species or very rare species, but we're not often sure what they are,” says Jakob. She is leading the club’s participation in the Fungal Diversity Survey, a citizen science project aimed to find and map fungi around the world. Jakob explains that if they find a mushroom they can’t identify, they can look at its unique DNA fingerprint and compare it to an online database of genetic information. Known fungi species are only the tip of an iceberg, says Jakob, so finding new species isn’t uncommon. “Anybody, including complete amateurs like me, can discover new fungi,” says Jakob.
The New York Mycological Society goes on weekly foraging walks, holds mushroom identification meetings and hosts guest lecturers. The club’s activities have had to move largely online during the pandemic, but they hope to be back together this spring. They educate and train non-scientists to identify and log species through apps and websites, which crowd-source huge amounts of information—more than professional mycologists alone could ever collect. iNaturalist, an app Jakob says the club frequently uses, has over two million fungi observations from around the world and is gaining more each season.
When Tom Bigelow, the club’s president, watched Reiser’s time-lapse video, he says he noticed many familiar mushrooms, or as he calls them, “old friends.” He says most people join the mycological society because they want to learn about wild edible mushrooms, but then get hooked. “When you start learning about these incredible organisms, many people's interests expand from there,” says Bigelow. “You start seeing them everywhere you are from the most barren urban area, to the deepest woods, or the desert even.”
The diversity of fungi makes foraging for edible mushrooms both an intriguing puzzle and a potentially dangerous task. Identifying which mushrooms are safe to eat and which might pose health risks is rarely easy, and Hibbett encourages those interested in learning about fungi to join a local club.
“There's something about young people and adults who gathered together to pursue an interest just because they want to,” says Hibbett. “There's this pure enthusiasm that is.... it's energizing.”