The largest living creature on Earth doesn’t breathe. It has no limbs. If you walked by, you might not even know you were in the presence of a gargantuan living being. Perhaps, however, if you believed in European folklore, you might imagine a pattern to the mushrooms growing at the base of trees and wonder if you had wandered into a giant fairy story.
The largest organism in the world is a huge, old fungus of the species Armillaria ostoyae in eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. This fungus produces edible “honey mushrooms,” nicknamed after their color. It is also parasitic on the roots of several tree species, producing a disease called Armillaria root disease.
The world’s largest individual creature was discovered by people trying to solve a mystery. Because it is found in a large area of forest, any pattern to the mushrooms was undetectable. Instead, scientists had observed another pattern in several large patches of dead trees. In each patch, the trees had died of a fungal infection. The trees that were dead the longest were in the center. Closer to the edge were trees that had not been dead as long. At the edge were trees that were partially diseased. In a ring outside the ill trees were healthy trees. The scientists wondered what had caused this pattern.
To answer this mystery, the group looked at DNA. The researchers found that fungal cells in infected trees were genetically identical throughout the largest patch, which meant that the samples came from one giant, largely invisible being, or one “genet.” The other local patches were similar—each represented an individual organism of great size. Over a long period of time, the individual fungus in each patch had spread ...
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