Unraveling the Origins of Bioluminescent Fungi
by Liz Kimbrough
Aristotle (384–322 BC) reported a mysterious light, distinct from fire, emanating from decaying wood. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) mentioned feasting on a glowing, sweet fungus found on trees in France and, in the late fifteenth century, a Dutch consul gave accounts of Indonesian peoples using fungal fruits to illuminate forest pathways. Bioluminescent fungi have intrigued generations of observers, and a handful of scientists still carry that torch of curiosity, answering questions about how and why these mushrooms glow.
Bioluminescence, light emitted by living organisms, has been verified in only 71 of the roughly 100,000 described species in the Kingdom Fungi. These 71 species belong to four distantly related lineages occurring throughout the world, with greatest abundance in the tropics. Conspicuous temperate species include: the Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms of Europe and the North America (Omphalotus illudens, O. olearius), the ghost fungus of Australia and Asia (O. nidiformis), the moon night mushroom of Japan (O. japonicus), and various species of honey mushrooms whose mycelium causes “foxfire”—the phenomenon of glowing wood noticed by Aristotle…
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photos by Cassius V. Stevani, IQ-USP, Brazil