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Mushrooms Promote Downpours

Spores released by mushrooms promote rainfall, finds a new study that has scientists rethinking the importance of fungi to humans and all living things

Nature's cloud seeders are mushrooms, with spores that promote raindrops and may lead to downpours, new research finds.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, documents a previously unknown feedback system whereby rain stimulates mushroom growth, and then the fully fruited mushrooms release spores that could result in later rain.

"We can watch big water droplets grow as vapor condenses on (the mushroom spore's) surface," said senior author Nicholas Money of Miami University's Biology Department. "Nothing else works like this in nature."

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Raindrops do form to a lesser degree around many different types of particulate matter, such as pollen. In a similar process, people seed clouds with compounds like silver iodide and solid carbon dioxide (dry ice).

Lead author Maribeth Hassett, Money and co-author Mark Fischer determined that spores from certain mushrooms and other fungi are probably even more potent rainmakers -- and they're not pollutants.

Prior research conducted by Reginald Buller, whom Money refers to as the "Einstein of Mycology," found that mushroom spores are discharged from their gills by the rapid displacement of fluid on cell surfaces and stimulation from the mushroom's production of sugars, such as mannitol. A catapult mechanism shoots the moisture-laden spores into the air, where the liquid evaporates.

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Droplets reform on the water-attracting spores in humid air, the scientists discovered after watching the process under electron microscopy. Over time, the droplets may evolve into large water drops that may produce rainclouds.

The effect is likely dramatic over rainforests that support very large populations of mushrooms and other fungi. It also could be significant during warmer months of the year above vast northern hemisphere boreal forests.

Any fungi that release their spores via a catapult mechanism can attract moisture, resulting in possible rainclouds, according to the scientists.

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"Wild porcini, for example, has spores of this kind; oyster mushrooms too," Money said. "Sixteen thousand species of mushrooms can do the same trick, so the most abundant species of fungi are likely to have the greatest effect upon cloud formation."

Money, who is the author of the book "Mushroom," does not advise growing a bunch of mushrooms to relieve drought conditions.

"Nature works very well when we leave her alone," he said. "The problems start when we cut down too many trees, burn fossil fuels, and keep multiplying as if there are no limits to human population."

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Fungi appear to be here for the long haul, though, having emerged on earth at least 500 million years ago. In addition to the new discovery about their rainmaking potential, they play a key role in ecosystems by decomposing plant tissues and dominating the recycling of nutrients in forests and grasslands.

"Without mushrooms, there would be no forests," Money said, "and without forests, humans would never have evolved."

Lynne Boddy of the Cardiff School of Biosciences told Discovery News that "it is intriguing to think about" the newly discovered positive feedback system, holding "that fungal spores may be responsible for causing rain to fall on forests, supplying the water that the fungi need to fruit."

Boddy said fungi "are absolutely crucial to the functioning of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems," and they often supply plants with mineral nutrients and water. Edible mushrooms supply such beneficial components to human diners also.

A puffball fungus released its spores into the air.

The rains that have innundated the East Coast this week may have finally stopped, but they left parting gifts that are invading lawns everywhere: mushrooms. If your yard is anything like mine, an alarming and entirely new (to me, anyway) assortment of fungi have sprung up in the past week: mushrooms red, green and orange in the shape of frowny faces and smiley faces, some lumpen masses, some perfect half moons, some warty, some smooth. What's more, these are magic mushrooms. The following photos are almost all of the same species: Fly Amanita, (Amanita muscaria). Explore the portraits I took of these exotic looking, but quite common, mushrooms. And learn a little about some of the largest organisms on Earth. Did I mention they're magic?

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This fly amanita mushroom (Amanita muscaria) is poisonous

and

hallucinogenic. It's thought that the mushroom is one of the oldest hallucinogens known to humans. During the Middle Ages, the ancient Norse warriors called Berserkers ate foods that contained the mushroom, which made them fearless and brutal fighters, even if they were completely high. Several tribes in Siberia were found in the early 1700s using the mushroom as an intoxicant. In order to stretch the euphoric effects of the mushroom, and possibly bypass the less savory effects of the mushroom (i.e. vomiting), tribesmen would often drink the urine of men who had taken the drug, since the drug passes through the body unchanged. The mushroom can also be consumed dried, or combined with other liquids.

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According to "Golden Guide: Hallucinogenic plants," the history of fly amanita could go even further back, thousands of years, to ancient India, where it was used to induce a religious fervor. In fact, fly amanita mushrooms may have been the main ingredient in soma, a ritual drink frequently mentioned in the Hindu religious text, the Rigveda. Soma, whose use has since died out, was made with the juice from the stalks of certain plants. Hindu tradition says the drink and the plant, which is also considered a god, all carry the same name. But fly amanita has long been a strong contender for the real identity of that plant, mainly because of the effects of soma mentioned in Hindu religious texts, and of ceremonial urine drinking.

If I were to sample some fly amanita, either dried, or maybe in a steeped tea, or perhaps in the urine of a helpful assistant, I might experience twitching, trembling or numbness in my arms and legs. I might feel happy, leading to singing and dancing. I might hallucinate colored visions, or see things much larger than they are, according to the "Golden Guide." I might grow violent, then fall into a deep sleep. I might develop strange convictions -- that I'm a newborn, or can fly. I might believe I'm in the presence of God. I might believe I am God.

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Beyond the effects of

Amanita muscaria

, fungi are magical all by themselves. Fungi are not plants; they live in their own kingdom, which includes mushrooms. What sets them apart from plants, and makes them like animals, is a material they have in their cell walls called chitin. Chitin makes up the hard outer shells of insects and other creatures with external skeletons.

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The fly amanita is common in the Northern Hemisphere, especially around pine and birch trees. But why do mushrooms and other fungi carpet the ground after it rains? Fungi live in a hidden world, often below the ground, connected by a web of very small filaments called hyphae. Hyphae are so thin that they dry out easily. Since it takes many, many hyphae to come together to create a mushroom, that's easiest when the threads can stay wet for a while.

We only see fungi when hyphae come together and shoot fruits into the light of day as caps, puffballs, mushrooms, ears and other forms. The fungal organisms we can't see can be as small as a square foot, or as large as 30 acres. New research has emerged that suggests hyphae play a role in supporting forests through so-called mycorrhizal links. The fungal filaments act as highways between trees, delivering nutrients from older, stronger trees to saplings, forming a critical web of carbon, nitrogen and water delivery -- a kind of tree communications system. Now that's magic.

Find out more about amazing mushrooms!