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Mushrooms communicate with each other using up to 50 ‘words’, scientist claims

A professor suggests that electrical impulses sent by mycological organisms could be similar to human speech

Among all the fungi studied, split gill fungi generated the most complex electrical signals.

Although fungi may appear to be silent and relatively self-contained organisms buried in forest litter or sprouting from trees, recent research suggests they are complex communicators. A mathematical analysis of the electrical signals that fungi send to one another has identified patterns that are strikingly similar to human speech. In previous research, it has been found that fungi transmit information through long, underground filaments called hyphae - similar to the way nerve cells do in humans. Interestingly, experiments have shown that hyphae of wood-digesting fungi produce more of these impulses when they come into contact with wooden blocks, raising the possibility that they use this electrical "language" to communicate information about food or injury with distant parts of themselves, or with hyphae-connected partners such as trees. However, are there any similarities between these electrical trains and human language? Researchers at the University of the West of England's unconventional computing laboratory in Bristol tracked the patterns of electrical spikes generated by four types of fungi - enoki, split gill, ghost and caterpillar. By inserting microelectrodes into substrates colonised by their patchwork of hyphae threads, their mycelia, he was able to measure their response. In fungi, we do not know if spiking patterns are related to human speech. Perhaps not, said Adamatzky. “On the other hand, there are many similarities in the way information is processed in living organisms of different classes, families, and species. I was just curious to see what they are like.” These spikes clustered into trains of activity, similar to vocabularies of 50 words, and their distribution closely matched human language patterns, according to the study published in Royal Society Open Science. The most complex "sentences" were generated by split gills, which grew on decaying wood and whose fruiting body resembled undulating waves of tightly packed coral. Adamtzky suggested the most likely reasons for these waves of electrical activity are to maintain the fungi's integrity - analogous to wolves howling to maintain the integrity of the pack - or to report newly discovered sources of attractants and repellants to other parts of their mycelia, he said. “There is also another option – they are saying nothing,” he said. “Propagating mycelium tips are electrically charged, and, therefore, when the charged tips pass in a pair of differential electrodes, a spike in the potential difference is recorded.” Whatever these “spiking events” represent, they do not appear to be random, he added. Even so, other scientists would like to see more evidence before they are willing to accept them as a form of language. Other types of pulsing behaviour have previously been recorded in fungal networks, such as pulsing nutrient transport – possibly caused by rhythmic growth as fungi forage for food. “This new paper detects rhythmic patterns in electric signals, of a similar frequency as the nutrient pulses we found,” said Dan Bebber, an associate professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter, and a member of the British Mycological Society’s fungal biology research committee. “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.”

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