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Fungi might use an electric "language" to talk to each other, research says

Andrew Adamatzky

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Life as a mushroom is not lonely.

In the wild, fungi transmit nutrients to trees and each other through an underground network of threads called mycelium.

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Researchers have also known for decades that fungi create faint electrical currents.

Why they do it is still a mystery, but some researchers believe those signals could be a tool for communication in their interconnected world.

Writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science this week, computer scientist Andrew Adamatzky of the University of West England Bristol analyzed four species of fungi to understand if their electrical activity might actually represent a language.

Andrew Adamatzky

Andrew Adamatzky

Adamatzky leads the University of West England Bristol’s Unconventional Computing Laboratory, where researchers are studying how different biological, chemical, and physical materials can be used to create the next generation of computers.

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“One of the motivations of my study was to contribute to uncovering basic mechanisms of decision making in the fungal network in terms of Boolean gates and circuits,” Adamatzky tells Inverse.

Understanding how fungi process the world could inspire new designs for computing circuits, or even wearables that incorporate living fungi.

Andrew Adamatzky

Much like how neurons fire in the human brain, the spikes in electricity from fungi could represent how they talk with each other and process information, Adamatzky hypothesizes in the report.

Andrew Adamatzky

For the study, he attached electrodes to samples of four species of fungi to capture their electrical spikes, which were tracked with a data logger.

Andrew Adamatzky

Then, he analyzed the frequency and amplitude of the spikes, as well as the time between them, to map out the patterns.

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Clusters of spikes appear to happen in “trains,” possibly signifying the use of individual words to communicate in sentences like human languages.

Adamatzky concluded that there are up to 50 different “words” in the fungal lexicon, though fungi most frequently use only 15-20 words depending on their species.

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However, it isn’t clear if the fungi are really using these pulses to speak — or if the fluctuations in electricity mean something else.

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Adamatzky tells Inverse that the pulses could by used for the fungi to keep their shape or announce their presence to other parts of mycelium network.

“There is also another option — they are saying nothing,” he says.

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Dan Bebber, an associate professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter, told The Guardian that the electrical pulses could also represent a rhythmic pattern at which fungi transport nutrients between each other.

“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.”

Dan Bebber to the The Guardian.

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