Programmed to stink
If you’re walking through the forest in the vicinity of the little fungus called Phallus impudicus, long before your roving eye discovers it in the litter of the forest floor, your nose is overwhelmed by a sickly sweet, disgusting stench like rotting flesh. The very name ‘impudicus’ means ‘shameless’, which is not hard to understand when you’re close by! It is also known, not surprisingly, as the ‘common stinkhorn’.
But the odour that is so repulsive to your nostrils is obviously very fragrant and attractive to blowflies and other insects which normally feed on decaying animal matter.
Indeed, this fungus lives up to its promise for the flies. When they arrive, although they don’t find any decaying flesh, they find something just as desirable for them—an edible olive-green slimy fluid which is exuded from the head of this mushroom. It is this apparently tasty and nutritious fluid, called the ‘gleba’, which gives off the obnoxious stench.
As the flies eagerly suck up this fluid, they get more than they bargained for—they also swallow the tiny spores of the fungus which are craftily located within this fluid.
Tinier than tiny
The word ‘tiny’ is actually a strong understatement. These almost countless spores (through which the fungus, with the help of the flies, reproduces its kind widely) are so small that 500 of them side by side would span barely a millimetre.
All the information to build up the fungus and perform all its functions from then on is totally contained in each of these minute particles. Throughout the entire life-cycle of the fungus from then on, nothing more is in any way able to add to or enrich this coded program.
Let us follow one of these spores in its travels, through the gut of the blowfly, far away from its parent.
When the spore is finally deposited in some moist, suitable ground, it begins to divide. As it divides, it forms a continuously lengthening thread called a ‘hypha’. As this thread wends its way through the ground, it keeps branching, forming a network of threads. This network is called a ‘primary mycelium’.
Nutrition for growth
These threads obtain their nutrition for growth from dead and decaying matter—unlike green plants which receive their energy for growth from sunlight.
By itself, this primary mycelium is unable to bring forth the mushroom-like fruit-body above the earth. In order for this to happen, it has to meet a second primary mycelium, of a different ‘sex’. Even the strongest microscope can’t tell which ‘sex’ a primary mycelium belongs to. The ‘sexes’ are not called male and female, just plus or minus. If the leading cells of a (+) and a (-) mycelium meet each other anywhere in the earth, they blend together; from this point on a new thread grows to form the so-called secondary mycelium.
This secondary network of threads can wander through the earth for years, until one day, for reasons which are not yet clear, these hyphae suddenly form dense nodules, just under the surface of the ground, which rapidly enlarge. They cluster together, bundle themselves into a firm tissue, pierce the surface of the ground, and order themselves into a stem and cap.
But this is not yet the recognizable form of the mature fungus. What we see poking out between the leaves on the forest floor is a shimmering, grey-white, egg-like object about the size of a tennis ball. These so-called ‘witch’s eggs’ or ‘devil’s eggs’, in contrast to the mature fruit-body, can be eaten. If we cut one in half with a knife, (see illustration) underneath the capsule, which prevents it drying out, we see the mature ‘mushroom’, seemingly collapsed and folded down like an accordion inside its box!
The fully grown organism eventually reaches as much as 20 cm (about 8 in.) in height. But the constituents are folded and packed in such an ingenious way that in order to reach its ultimate height, growth in the normal sense is not necessary, rather it is an unfolding. This is why it reaches its full height in such a phenomenally rapid time—we can actually watch it happening. This is able to happen because all the parts are folded together in just the right proportions.
Perhaps the closest human example is that of a model ship assembled inside a bottle, with everything folded down so that all it takes is the pull of a thread in order to cause it to rise to its full height. But even this example falls miserably short of helping us to understand the ingenuity of construction in this mushroom. The model-builder is able to build his ship to its final size, to see what it will look like before he collapses it.
When you think that not only the construction, but the entire future unfolding of the ‘finished product’ is pre-programmed in the coded language (DNA) contained in each tiny spore carried by flies, we see a feat of engineering and miniaturization of information which has not even begun to be approached by all the technology of our society. Is there a computer which is able to make exact copies of itself, copies which by themselves are able to differentiate themselves into equally self-reproducing computers, along with all the necessary software? That’s exactly what happens when this despised, stinking little fungus forms its tiny spores!
To give an example of the amount of information which is generated during fungal reproduction—a single, ordinary field mushroom, with a cap of about 10 cm (about 4 in.) in diameter, throws off about 40 million spores every hour. Forty million programs for the construction and functioning of a new field mushroom!
Bigger than earth!
There is a fungus with a cap diameter which can reach half a metre. In its gleba, as many as 7.5 billion spores are formed. If each of these 7.5 billion programs were to be realized in full, then even in the second generation there would be a fungal mass 800 times as big as our earth! Not an un-ordered, slimy mess of plasma, not in the least! All of these would be properly constructed and functioning fungal organisms, to the last detail.
The information on the DNA even codes for the construction of the spores which carry the DNA. These have to be tiny enough to pass through the unusually small and narrow canals of the mouth and gut of flies, without getting stuck. Further, they have to resist digestion by the fly. The miniaturized information library of the DNA in each spore also has to carry the entire developmental program of the mycelium in the ground, and the development of the slimy olive-green gleba with just the right smell to attract those flies which will help it to reproduce again.
This massively complicated program must also contain an exact timeframe, so that everything occurs in the right sequence towards its ultimate goal. The response to external trigger factors such as warmth and temperature to get the spores going at the right time and the right place must all be calculated into the program from the beginning.
To regard all this as the result, ultimately, of chance and coincidence (evolution) is to stretch the imagination beyond its limits and exceed the bounds of scientific acceptability. Such obvious planning and design information, even in such a seemingly despicable organism, speaks clearly of a Master Planner.
(Adapted from an article in the German magazine FACTUM, February, 1989. Translation and adaptation by Carl Wieland.)