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Can Mushrooms Grow Underwater?

For many years it was thought that only non-mushroom-forming fungi could survive underwater. Non-mushroom-forming fungi were found living under the surface of great blue lakes, oceans, and even rivers. Because of this, mycologists believed that mushrooms were just not suited to grow underwater and could only be found on land.

In the early 2000s, a team of researchers in Oregon discovered the first underwater growing mushroom called Psathyrella aquatica. This landmark discovery proved that mushrooms can not only grow on land but underwater as well.

Photograph © Robert Coffan 2007

This discovery opens up the possibility that more types of mushrooms could in fact thrive in the water, but have yet to be discovered. But let’s learn more about the underwater mushroom we know exists, Psathyrella aquatica.

Can Mushrooms Live Underwater?

Since the first discovery of underwater mushrooms over a decade ago, there is still a lot that is unknown. P. aquatica is the only known underwater mushroom with a fruiting body that has been found to date.

P. aquatica is both extremely rare in the wild and also difficult to grow in labs, making further research on understanding this incredibly unique organism a difficult task.

Researchers believe that less than 1% of aquatic fungi have been discovered, with most being microscopic and invisible to the naked eye. Of that 1%, an even smaller fraction is believed to be underwater fruiting bodies like P. aquatica. With such small numbers, it’s unclear where and when another mushroom like P. aquatica will be found.

Above-ground versus Underwater Mushrooms

Recognizing how this is possible requires understanding some of the key similarities and differences between underwater and land-based mushrooms.

Both above-water mushrooms and mushrooms like P. aquatica have similar characteristics that help them survive and prosper. For example, mushrooms are made up of an intricate interlacing network of cells called mycelium. The mycelial network is crucial in providing mushrooms the resilience needed to survive against harsh climates, prevent drying out, and protect against natural pests found in the environment. 

Along with this, most mushrooms like P. aquatica have a fruiting body, a critical part that acts as the reproductive organ for mushrooms. The mushroom fruiting body itself involves three core components called the stem, cap, and gills.

The cap is the most recognizable part of the mushroom and functions to house and protect the gills. The stem connects the cap and gills to the soil. This part is crucial in allowing the gills of the mushroom to be high enough that they can release spores into the wind.

Most mushrooms that live in the soil will typically release spores from their gills into the air which can be carried by the wind to other locations to create a new crop of mushrooms. However, in the case of P. aquatica mushrooms, it’s still unclear how the spores survive and get delivered to other places.

It’s possible that the spores themselves have enough strength and resilience to be able to survive the harsh conditions present underwater and simply get carried away by the current. Also, it’s possible that the spores released from the mushroom’s gills actually float all the way to the top of the water, making it easier for them to spread.

How Do Mushrooms Survive Underwater?

The current research isn’t clear on how exactly mushrooms like P. aquatica survive underwater, but like other underwater vegetation, it’s thought that the mushroom is able to take in oxygen that is dissolved in its aquatic habitat.

In addition to aquatic oxygen, the underwater mushroom uses soil under the surface of the water as an appropriate substrate for nutrients to help keep the it alive.

What Kinds of Fungi Live Underwater?

Most fungi that live underwater are the type that does not have any fruiting bodies. This means these fungi lack caps, stems, and gills; and therefore do not produce spores. Rather, they reproduce asexually.

There are over 400 of these non-fruiting fungi species that live underwater, and the vast majority of them are both microscopic and incredibly hard to culture/grow in a lab. This makes researching these species challenging and why so little is actually known about underwater fungi.

P. aquatica is still the only fruiting body mushroom that has been found to grow in the water. It’s thought that there are more mushrooms with fruiting bodies that live underwater, but finding these different mushrooms has proven to be difficult.

Final Thoughts

For many years, there have been lots of fungi discovered to live and thrive underwater. There are thought to be over 400 different species of underwater fungi and many more that are still undiscovered.

The discovery of P. aquatica was incredibly surprising and it opened the possibility of there being more fruiting body underwater mushrooms. Needless to say, more time is needed to fully understand and discover another mushroom like P. aquatica.

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