A computer scientist found the average fungal lexicon contains 50 words
Elizabeth Gamillo – Smithsonian – 12 April
“Mushrooms on a log may each seem like quiet, standalone organisms, but they’re actually the above-ground, sporing fruit belonging to a fungus, connected to the large organism by a root network called mycelium. Although fungi may not seem very talkative either, a new study shows electric signals traveling through their mycelium network could help the organism communicate.
Published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the paper concludes some fungi use electrical impulses to share and process information internally. When signal activity spikes, it creates intricate patterns that may function like words in human speech. It is estimated fungi vocabulary could consist of about 50 words, reports Leila Fadel of NPR’s Morning Edition.
Previous research has found fungi can send electrical impulses underground through long, thread-like structures called hyphae, which expand to form a network of mycelium, reports Linda Geddes for the Guardian. Hyphae sort of work like nerve cells transmitting signals to other parts of the human body. Some studies have shown electrical activity increases when the hyphae of wood-digesting fungi touch wooden blocks, which may indicate fungi use these impulses to share information about food or injury, per the Guardian.
In the new study, four fungi species—ghost fungi (Omphalotus nidiformis), caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps militaris), split gill fungi (Schizophyllum commune), and enoki fungi—were analyzed. Study author Andrew Adamatzky, a computer scientist at the University of the West England, eavesdropped on the fungi’s chit-chat using tiny electrodes connected to hyphae to measure spikes in signal activity.
Each spike in activity was organized into groups and given a linguistic and information complexity analysis. Spikes varied in duration and length, with some impulses lasting up to 21 hours. The clusters of electrical points resembled a human vocabulary of up to 50 words. However, only 15 to 20 fungal words are used frequently. Fungal words are also similar in length to human words.
“A fungal word length averaged over four species […] is 5.97 which is of the same range as an average word length in some human languages, e.g. 4.8 in English and 6 in Russian,” Adamatsky writes in the paper.
In terms of complexity, split-gill mushrooms produced “remarkably diverse” sentences, according to the study. While the research shows fungi produce patterns of electric signals, there’s no way to tell what they are talking about, if they are at all, per Science Alert.
“We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech,” Adamatzky told the Guardian. “Possibly not. On the other hand, there are many similarities in information processing in living substrates of different classes, families, and species. I was just curious to compare.”
Like howling wolves, the fungi could be signaling their presence to one another, Adamatzky tells Hannah Osborne for Newsweek. They could also be saying nothing, but the spiking events are not random, Adamastzky added.
While comparing the mushroom’s electrical impulses to human speech is interesting and notable, some researchers are skeptical. Mycologist Dan Bebber from the University of Exeter, who was not involved with the study, tells the Guardian that the electric signals could be similar to nutrient pulses seen in other fungi.
“Though interesting, the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic, and would require far more research and testing of critical hypotheses before we see ‘Fungus’ on Google Translate,” Bebber tells the Guardian.”
Elizabeth Gamillo is a daily correspondent for Smithsonian and a science journalist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.