Science has found the secret of glow in the dark mushrooms

N. gardneri mushrooms growing on the base of a young babassu palm in Brazil.
Image: Michele P. Verderane/IP-USP-2008

Researchers have found out why some rare mushrooms glow a ghostly green in the dark.

The light emitted from those fungi attracts the attention of insects, including beetles, flies, wasps, and ants.

Those insect visitors are apparently good for the fungi because they spread the fungal spores around.

The latest research into the mushrooms found in Brasil is reporting in the journal Current Biology.

“It appears that fungi make light so they are noticed by insects who can help the fungus colonise new habitats,” says Cassius Stevani of Brazil’s Instituto de Química-Universidade de São Paulo.

There are many examples of living things that generate light in various ways.

During the day. N. gardneri mushrooms. Image: Michele P. Verderane/IP-USP-2008

Among bioluminescent organisms, fungi are the most rare and least well understood. Only 71 of more than 100,000 described fungal species produce green light in a biochemical process which requires oxygen and energy.

Researchers had believed in most cases that fungi produce light around the clock, suggesting that perhaps it was a simple metabolic byproduct.

The new work suggests that just isn’t so, at least not in the case of Neonothopanus gardneri, one of the biggest and brightest of bioluminescent mushrooms.

The researchers found that the mushrooms’ glow is under the control of a temperature-compensated circadian clock. They suggest that this level of control probably helps the mushrooms save energy by turning on the light only when it’s easy to see.

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