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Glowing mushrooms

Gianna Grün
March 30, 2015

The stars, the sun, lamps and fireflies all shine brightly. But few realize mushrooms do too and now researchers have discovered why.

Photo: Bioluminescent mushrooms glowing in the dark.
Scientists have discovered some mushrooms glow in the dark to aid in reproductionImage: picture alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library/T. Marent

Next time you have mushrooms for dinner, take a moment to consider what you are eating. Here's the unappetizing truth: scientifically speaking, the delicious snacks are actually fruit bodies made to spread the reproductive spores of fungi.

The main body of the fungus is largely found underground where it can be somewhat difficult to disperse spores far and wide. That's why fruit bodies grow above ground where wind and rain, for instance, can deliver them to areas further afield. Some fungi even grow high up on tree trunks to take better advantage of this distribution system.

Smell is a factor for some mushrooms too. By producing a sometimes nasty stench, mushrooms attract animals, which help spread spores by brushing against the mushrooms and distributing the spores as they go.

But it seems some mushrooms go even further to reproduce. Brazilian researchers have just proven in a new study published in journal Current Biology that the fruit bodies also light up to attract spore-spreading insects at night.

How to attract spore-spreaders? Illuminate!

In an initial experiment, camera observations showed the glowing fruit bodies became infested by rove beetles.

To rule out that smell or some other feature was to blame, the scientists built an artificial glowing mushroom out of acrylic resin and found the beetles were more attracted to the fake luminescent mushrooms than their non-glowing counterparts.

While luminosity seems to be an efficient way of attracting spore-spreading insects, it is uncommon. Of the more than 100,000 known fungal species, only 71 are known to produce light, the New York Times writes, making them one of the rarest bioluminescent organisms.

But they are beautiful, aren't they?

Photo: Bioluminescent mushrooms glowing in the dark.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Chung Hsing University