In the Realm of Fungi

When roaming outside and your eyes go no lower than your phone screen, you may miss one or more of your relatives in passing. You are forgiven though if you don’t recognize them immediately as you would be hard-pressed to see any similarities; they separated, along with the animal kingdom, from a common parent more than one billion years ago.

One of the most commonplace yet incredible living organisms appearing before you on the ground are fungi. “Mushrooms?” you ask. Well, yes. The same, gastronomically speaking, as those you serve on your pizza or in a good soup or salad. “My relative?!” Well, several times removed, as they say. Genetically, they are closer to animals than plants through a common ancestor referred to as a Eukaryotic organism. Don’t fear you are eating meat, though, if you maintain a vegetarian diet. Their divergence created unique cellular structures that have some similarities but also some major differences from animal cells.

Fungi have cell walls, which act as a pressure valve, which contain chitin. [No, not ‘chitlins’ which are pig intestines] Chitin is a derivative of glucose which can be found in some very familiar areas in Nature, especially at the dinner table. If you’re a seafood lover, then you’ve handled chitlin as it is a component of the exoskeleton of crabs, lobsters and shrimp as well as the outer shell of squid and octopus. On the other hand, animal cells have tissues which separate cells from organs. Animals cells also lack one feature which is important to both fungi and plants – chloroplasts. They are a specialized sub-unit within a cell which conduct photosynthesis.

Coprinus comatus - Shaggy Inkcap
Coprinus comatus – Shaggy Inkcap

It wasn’t until 1993 that an analysis of genetic relationships, rather than physical traits, amongst organisms with complex cells – which includes sponges, protozoa, algae, plants and animals – brought scientists to a different conclusion. Through the analysis of the same genes in different species and tracking the quantity of mutational changes occurring between organisms, they were able to determine kinships based on a developed mathematical model. These findings suggested that animals and fungi share a common evolutionary ancestry.

One interesting idea for consideration that came out of this evolutionary relationship of humans to fungi concerned the difficulty of treating fungal diseases. Dr. Mitchell L. Sogin, of the Center for Molecular Evolution at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, and author of the study indicated that “a lot of the metabolism is so similar that you can’t target a fungus sufficiently without gravely affecting the human host as well.”

One other interesting point about fungi that may escape consideration, especially if you are examining now that mushroom that sits amongst the melted cheese on your pizza, is its sexual nature. Hopefully you are sitting down for this and perhaps have had a few gulps of beer to prepare yourself. While we know that in the human animal there are only two sexes – male and female – scientists have estimated that in fungi there are approximately 36,000. It sounds confusing, but not for them as they are looking more for a mate of a different mating type rather than good looks, money, common interests or any of the other characteristics humans seek amongst each other.

So, what else should we know about fungi that might endear us more to them as our very, very distant relatives? As we have taken a greater responsibility on our planet to reuse and recycle, fungi have been working at this since sometime after they left home and took a different path. They are essential to the health of soil in vegetable gardens, crop fields and forests as they decompose dead plants, animals and other organic matter into soil. Just think of them as early farmers well before we settled the land.

So, the next time you see any fungi growing in your backyard or near a trail, don’t go looking for any its characteristics in your uncle’s nose or your mother’s hair. You won’t find them. Just give a friendly wave and revel in knowing that our most ancient roots are still alive and growing almost underneath our noses…or phone screens.




Unresolved: A Collaborative Office Space

Another study published this week in the journal Biology Letters highlighted the work of researchers who found that the more physical connections created between chambers in an ant colony, the greater the increase in the collection of local food supplies. Reason? Simply better internal communication which elicited an increased response from the colony members. Clearly, ants have had the corner on networking well before humans entered the scene with social media.


One interesting suggestion though was made by the scientist who conducted the study, which piqued my curiosity, as this is one idea which has repeatedly been bandied about yet has wavered  in and out of favor amongst businesses.

“One straightforward lesson that will probably not surprise many architects is that having more corridors connecting offices or rooms will facilitate easier movement of people among them, both promoting interactions and expediting evacuation in emergency,” said Noa Pinter-Wollman, a research biologist at UC San Diego’s BioCircuits Institute. “However, a less obvious potential addition to this lesson would be that increasing the connectivity of locations with an important function, such as break rooms, where people interact—similar to the entrance chamber of the ants—could increase interactions and collaborations.”

Though Pinter-Wollman’s suggestion appears to be another modification to the open office plan, the concept of changing the layout of the modern office to encourage collaboration, ‘natural’ interactions or increase work efficiency through closer communication has been a part of architects and office furniture makers designs for more than 65 years, including business leadership eyeing an improvement to the bottom line.

Prior to the 1950’s, most office spaces were setup to squeeze as many desks as possible into a single floor space; inevitably giving managers a greater watch on their employees (not including factory workers as their space was setup primarily for machinery) to make certain work was being done, while idleness and chatter were kept to a minimum. In the mid 50’s, the concept of Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape,” was introduced and workers were grouped according to function with small partitions separating the areas. Cubicles are still the norm in most offices today except for some design firms or technical companies such as Google, Facebook and Swatch. But some elements incorporated into the office may have thwarted any design efforts to create a worker bee environment.

The water fountain (invented in 1907 out of a health need) developed into the modern water cooler (1915) and likely saw an increase in office gossip with a decrease in productivity though that could only be proven with studies of the period. Within the next decade or so, there were indications that management became concerned about too much time being spent around the coolers for purposes other than hydration. Today, it is expected that most offices will have a water dispenser of some design, plus a system that will deliver coffee, tea, or cocoa with options. A few may also have snack machines of various calibers.

Space created for substantive discussions and collaboration will not occur though, if the desire doesn’t exist in the first place with the workers. Most office workers form their own social groups based either on work function, cultural ties, activities outside the office or happenstance. Communication between them on projects and ideas usually happen in meetings though those can tend to constrict a good flow of ideas. Creativity comes about in smaller groups of individuals or in a one-to-one meeting in the hallways or at lunch. The “Build it and they will come” concept has the right environmental parameters, but it doesn’t take into mind how…well, how the mind works and when a natural collaboration occurs versus when it is a matter of cooperation.

By all means, buildings and office spaces should be designed first for efficiency of movement and to allow an easy flow of contact between groups and individuals. Secondly, they should be designed to provide a more welcoming environment that connects with the outside and doesn’t seem like a dungeon or prison. Lastly, there should be flexibility in the space so as a business changes or if a new business moves in, adjustments can be more readily made with the least cost in disruption to employees time and to the budget.

Study Nature. Study the social and physical structures of species who can give us an idea to start designing on our sketch pads. But allow that what works for Nature doesn’t always translate in behavioral science to how humans work, live, think, communicate and interact.

More Active Than A Tree

Yet another report has come out about disease risks with a sedentary lifestyle ( The researchers in this study discovered that there was a 20% increase in chronic kidney disease for every 80 minutes/day of sedentary behavior, aka sitting on the buttocks. Small wonder.


While there is still much to be examined and tested, as they noted, the conclusions do not reach any level of surprise. Granted that not everyone who sits around will suffer from kidney disease, but those who do not or cannot inject a more active lifestyle into their day (in consideration of any hereditary factors) will likely be susceptible to some type of disease or ailment at some point.

Ask anyone in their late 30’s and above, who don’t take time to stretch during the day, how many mornings they wake up with a twinge in their back or even when making a bending movement where a strain is put on an underdeveloped back muscle? How much could high cholesterol, diabetes or any cardiovascular disease (again, in consideration of any hereditary factors) be prevented by an adjustment of diet and an increase in exercise?

We are all guilty at times of unconsciously adjusting our lifestyle behavior in the wrong direction (larger meals, more snacking, increased time with the TV or computer, parking closer and closer to a store as we increase in years). While there may be examples of people living into their 90’s or 100’s with little movement in Japan and China, many factors of their diet, hereditary genes, attitudes (yes, a positive nature can help), or any type of  exercise they participate in such as Tai Chi are not always mentioned.

Further studies on effects from sedentary behavior will always be conducted because they are easy to perform. Ten countries in the world, including China have already been identified with a great percentage of an overweight population. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. is at the top of the list.


Perhaps, a positive change in the percentages will occur with more informative health education at the local level or free community programs that will demonstrate the health benefits and encourage self-responsibility. Certainly the movement by many grocery stores to put fruit and vegetable stands nearer the front entrance can help remind us to change the balance in our daily meals. But the desire to be more active remains a lifestyle choice and responsibility of the individual.