What is mycelium? (with photos)

Oyster mushroom mycelium can kill nematodes.

The mycelium is the vegetative portion of a fungus, meaning it is the portion that propagates through asexual reproduction. It consists of a web of bifurcated hyphae, branching or thread-like structures. Depending on the type of fungus and how well developed it is, the mycelium can be visible or microscopic. Mold that grows on decaying food, for example, is a visible form.

Black truffles arise from the mycelium of a fungus.

In addition to asexual reproduction, the mycelium is responsible for absorbing nutrients from the environment. It releases enzymes into the surrounding environment to break down the food source into a digestible form and then absorb it. This process also helps dead plant material and other organic material to decompose. The material can also help to renew the soil through this process, for example by breaking down contaminants such as pesticides. Some mycelia help plants absorb water and nutrients more efficiently, and others are also important food sources for soil-dwelling invertebrates.

A visible form of mycelium includes mold that grows on food.

The mycelium can also be extremely extensive. A notorious fungal colony in the forest of eastern Oregon once covered 2,400 acres (9.7 square km). It grew to such a size over the course of about 2,200 years and killed off plant growth in the forest many times, each time leading to deeper layers of soil that could support the growth of ever-larger trees.

Mycelium is sometimes used in agriculture or landscaping. In addition to their ability to replenish nutrients, some types of fungus form a symbiotic relationship, called a mycorrhiza, with the roots of a plant. The plant and the fungus help each other to receive nutrients they could not obtain on their own. Mycelium can also be used as an organic filter for soil or water in a process called mycofiltration, in which a mycelial mat prevents the entry of harmful chemicals and microorganisms. They are also sometimes used to keep the soil fresh on unpaved roads.

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A fungal colony in eastern Oregon covered 2,400 acres.

Some types of fungi use sexual reproduction as well as asexual reproduction. The portion of a fungus that reproduces sexually arises from the mycelium and is called a sporocarp or fruiting body. The fruiting bodies of many different types of fungi are known as mushrooms or truffles, although there are a few other types.

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