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Morel mushroom may grow crop of its own

A fungus could be a farmer itself, sowing, cultivating and harvesting bacteria

FUNGAL FARMERS  Strands of the thick-footed morel fungus serve as a highway for common soil bacteria, marked with a glowing protein, traveling to new territory. The highways could be a fungal version of planting bacteria as a crop.

A sought-after mushroom that people can’t farm might be the first fungus known to do some agriculture itself.

Human farmers have yet to reliably coax the thick-footed morel, one of several culinary morel species, into sprouting the mushrooms that chefs prize. People have gotten the Morchella crassipes fungus to form mats of fine strands but no stalked, wrinkly, spore-forming bodies to sauté.

Lab tests, however, suggest that these fungal strands themselves can do simple farming tasks. The morel can spread soil bacteria to new “fields” and cultivate them with fungal secretions that the bacteria consume, says microbial ecologist Pilar Junier of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The fungus can supplement its food suppy by taking up carbon from the bacteria, she and her colleagues report October 30 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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