A glimpse at the sex lives of fungi

For several weeks I wondered: What is it that I am seeing here?
There were lots of little off-shoots of the single strands of mycelium, at fairly regular intervals.
Someone had suggested the fungus started branching off in search for food, but this did not fit the pattern I saw.
Branching fungal strands, hyphae, maintain their diameter as they grow. What puzzled me – these appeared pointy at the top, and reminded me of coral polyps, and the tiny female flowers of hazels. Have you ever seen these? You have to get close-up and personal to notice these georgeous crimson red beauties. How do these tiny flowers grow into such tasty morsels as hazelnuts?! But that’s another marvel!

Coral-like female flower of hazel in January

The pointy structures were also a bit too regular and too numerous – surely this would be a great energy expense for the fungus? For what gain?

Then, a fellow soil food web student (thanks Robert T!) posted a similar but better quality image, and Dr Ingham commented these were phialides, reproductive structures. Hmm, are these what make mushroom bodies? No – they did not have the “right shape” for mushrooms, so off to the internet in the search for more answers…

Oh dear, it does not start well: Minter et al. are not exactly encouraging when they say “nobody is agreed on what a typical phialide is and nobody can be certain what anyone else means by the term”. Oops, well, but that was more than 20 years ago, right?

Fast forward to 2016: “Phialides are vase-shaped cells (…), that develop on conidiophores.” – OK, thanks Nicholas P. Money that’s a fair description, but what are they for?? And what are conidiophores?

Turns out, the sex life of fungi is rather diverse, and seems to involve a lot more terms to look up! Here is an abbreviated version:

Fungi propagete through spores. Similarly to plant seeds these contains the fungal DNA and the potential to start a new fungal organism. Also similarly to plants, fungi can multiply with and without sex. DIY offspring!

If you are thinking of a mushroom walk in the woods or are picking a box from the veg isle, you are handling the particular fruiting bodies of one particular group of fungi (the basidiomycetes). Under their mushroom umbrellas they grow their spores, and when the conditions are right, disperse them in the air or water to find another place to grow.
And it seems, nature has evolved many more funky effective dispersal methods, depending on where these spores are, and whether they are over- or underground: “squirt guns, explosive stalks, and a catapult powered by surface tension”. Sounds like this book contains much to be surprised by, and a synthesis of recent fungal research.

But back to our puzzle. What about condidiophores on phialides??

Conidia are non-moving, asexual spores. The name arises from the Greek word for dust.
Before their dispersal, conidia sit at the end of a stalk structure, attached to the hyphae – a strand of the the underground mycelium network. The spore-carrying stalk, called a conidiophore, comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on the species.
In the case of my picture, the fungi haven’t quite got to the spore-making bit yet.

If they had, it would probably look something like this:

Asexual formation of conida (spores) and their support structures

Condida all all around us, apparently over the last hour you and I have just breathed in approx. 40 of them, and our immune response in the lungs cleverly knows how to respond so potential pathogens don’t harm us. Most of the time.

Wow, did not expect to go full-circle into human health during this somewhat technical anatomical and physiological excursion! For future reference, here is a little overview of different types of spores:

Asexual reproduction – single organism. Those that can sexually reproduce also use asexual reproduction.

> Cells can split (fission) or make buds that than separate from the parent cell
> Broken bits of hypha can grow into a separate organisms
> Asexual spores form. The majority of spores arise in this manner.
Sexual spores – typically two parental organisms

Blastospores (bud at the end of a hypha) Ascospores (spores contained in a sac = ascus)
Conidia (“dust” particles on a vase-like stalk)Basidiospores (club-shaped structures, your “typical” mushroom)
Chlamydosphore (thick walls to survive unfavourable conditions)Oospores (formed in a female organ)
Sporangiospores (formed in round sac-like structure on an areal hypha)Zygospores (thick walled spores)
Partial overview of sexual and asexual reproduction of fungi. Any errors are my own.

P.S. In case if you are wondering about the strange colour of the photo above – it came from a veg plot. The colour has gone reddish/purple after I used a candle to slow down a fast moving nematode for identification. It dried out the sample, and the sut from the candle contributed to the colour change.

Soil sample – veg plot

P. P. S. I care for my nematodes, and immediately inserted it back into water, and out it went to the compost. Hope it recovered and lived on happily.

4 thoughts on “A glimpse at the sex lives of fungi

  1. Phialides are not found in Basidiomycetes. You are confusing phialides with cystidia and basidia, the spacing cells and sexual reproductive cells in Basidiomycetes/mushrooms. you have shown phialides on an Aspergillus or Penicillium species. There are many more forms of which your picture is just one – ie coming directly off the vegetative mycelium.
    Sexual spores are generally produced from two parents – ie two different colonies of the same species. However, there are fungi that have the ability to produce sexual spores from the one colony but different hypha on that colony mycelium

    1. Thank you Mary. You are right, I probably should have made this clearer. I was trying to explore from what I knew (fruiting bodies/basidomycetes) to what I did not know – as what I saw did not fit the pattern of what I expected. Yet after a chain of explaining new terms with new terms with new terms, the clarity might have suffered! Amazing to think that sexual spores can be produced within the same organism, too.

  2. For those who want to really get into the ID of fungi, please consider under-grad courses about fungal ID. I received a very good grounding in fungal taxonomy when I took a couple University courses during the summer. Just realize that “back in my under-grad days”, they didn’t include much info on what all these fungi were doing in soil, water, hot pools, etc. We have shown that fungi do an amazing number of jobs in the soil, just like bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, etc. We have only begun, and there are so many more levels to this!

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