The Fungus with 23,000 Sexes

Dating can be difficult. Especially during lockdown. One organism that probably does not understand the struggle however, is a fungus known as Schizophyllum commune, or ‘Splitgill’ mushroom. Believe it or not, this fungi has over 23,000 different sexes. Though it is common for fungi to have several sexes, this is excessive even for a mushroom. Bearing in mind that most animals have only two possible sexes (sexes being purely biological and separate to gender) that can result in ‘successful’ mating (i.e. creating offspring), the dating pool potential for this fungi is mind-boggling! Learn here about the fungus with 23,000 sexes!

What’s Your Name, And Where Do You Come From?

So what does this excessively sexual ‘shroom look like? Well, it is actually a type of white wood rot that can be found in parts of India, Thailand, Nigeria, Madagascar and the East Indies. Splitgill mushroom is apparently rubbery and tough to eat, with most Western guides designating it as inedible. This doesn’t put off non-Westerners though, for they are versed in the fungi’s medicinal uses. As is the case for many mushrooms It has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties that protect it in the wild, and these are greatly beneficial to humans.

Variety Is The Spice Of Life

So, apart from variety being the spice of life, how does having such an abundance of sexes benefit this fungus? Well as Cornell Professor Kathie Hodge states humans can only potentially procreate with “about half the people in the room” (depending on your social circle). When, like Schizophyllum commune, your options are so much greater, the odds of successful procreation vastly increase. You can, as Hodge jokes “…find that everybody on the dance floor is a potential mate.” 

A Bit Of Science

The ‘sexes’ themselves don’t manifest as physical differences for the most part, as we might associate with animals.The variations are hidden in the genome, at two separate locations, in which are two alleles (variations on a gene). The loci (locations) are termed A and B, while the alleles are called “alpha” and “beta.” That makes four potential sexes. However, there’s more. Every A-alpha/beta and B-alpha/beta can have loads of different variants, called specificities. This makes over 339 specificities for A and 64 for B. Thousands of possible unique sexes are created when you introduce the two.

A Fungus Romance

The main priority is that the fungus finds a mate of a different sex-type. The fungi then join in what is romantically called a ‘clamp-connection’, wherein nuclei pass from one cell to another. Additionally, either partner can become pregnant (i.e. produce a baby mushroom) and either can ‘father’ the offspring (i.e. give the fungi equivalent of a sperm cell)

Never A Dull Moment

This enforced variation creates stronger offspring that are more resistant to disease and parasites, meaning that the species of fungus remains strong for generations to come. So, dating in the mushroom world— never a dull moment. 

Side note—there is also a deadly fungus, named Cryptococcus neoformans which can reproduce with clones of itself. Sounds like a deal breaker to us…

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