After a bone-dry June and July here in Western New York, the forest floor has come alive following some intense August downpours. Earlier this week, I went on my annual birthday foray and the diversity I found was mind-blowing. Besides all of the thoughtful gestures showed by my friends and family, the forest offered one hell of a birthday surprise. Several species stuck out that day and I did my best to take quality photos, but the diversity was so great, I could only stay in one spot for so long because there was just so much to see. One particular patch of mushrooms that stuck out was Sarcodon imbricatus, more commonly known as the scaly hedgehog.
First thing I realized was just how massive these mushrooms can grow! Some of the individuals in this patch were easily the size of dinner plates, some even larger! After picking one up, I turned the specimen over and found teeth instead of gills or pores. The name of its genus can be explained by ancient Greek words for flesh tooth, (sarco-'flesh' and odon 'tooth'). The name of the species however comes from the Latin word for tiled. If you ask me, I think we should stick to these ancient roots and have its common name be the tiled flesh tooth, or the giant flesh tooth, instead of the scaly hedgehog, but that’s just me.
This mycorrhizal species is most commonly found growing in proximity to conifer trees, but I found my patch near mixed hardwoods with oak and beech dominating. By looking at its size, the fungus probably does a really good job of finding soil nutrients and sending those resources to its host tree. These large mushrooms must receive quite a generous supply of plant carbohydrates in return for its nutrient scavenging services which ultimately relays into increased body mass. With its large size, more potential offspring are released into the air, which increases the chances of these two partners to engage into future mutualisms.
Like all the other mycorrhizal species I found on my birthday hike, Sarcodon imbricatus enhances these forest ecosystems that I love. Trees grow larger for longer with their fungal partners. Large mature trees provide food and shelter for a wide array of forest species, and they are also the most important players in forest regeneration. Besides the species ecosystem enhancing qualities, these mushrooms may directly enhance our own health. A 2018 study carried out by 9 Chinese scientists showed some rather incredible pharmacological bioactivities on mice.
The mice used in this study had hematopoietic dysfunction, which means their bone marrow doesn’t function nearly as good as it should because the bone marrow microenvironment isn’t suitable. Mammals with hematopoietic dysfunction can’t form as many new blood cells as healthy animals, and have smaller organ mass and experience fatigue. These researchers isolated Sarcodon imbricatus polysaccharides (SIPS) and treated the mice for 28 days. This study showed that proteins from a species that grows from the forest floor actually induces the proliferation and differentiation of CHRF and K562 cells. These cells upregulate specific proteins that enhance the bone marrow microenvironment. Compared to their control mice, the mice treated with SIPS had increased bodyweight, alleviated enlargement of the spleen and liver, and a recovery of peripheral blood to normal levels. Also, within the bone marrow, levels of lymphocytes and hematopoietic stem cells increased significantly.
This is a bit of a scientific breakthrough, that was just discovered earlier this year. On my birthday, I found these mushrooms, and they were so cool! However, after reading about them I learned how invaluable they truly are, not only for forest ecosystems, but human health. About one out of three humans will have cancer in their lifetime. I am no expert on how cancer is treated, but I do know that in long-term radiotherapeutic or chemotherapeutic treatments, patient’s body systems are weakened. The lymphocytes and hematopoietic stem cells in our bone marrow can’t produce as many red and white blood cells, so we get fatigued, and we get sick on top of having cancer. This mycorrhizal species that I found growing in this wet August here in Western NY produces polysaccharides that actually change the microhabitat of our bone marrow, and enhances the functioning of this crucial organ system.