CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Exploring the Microscopic World in Our Forests, Homes, and Bodies

By Keith Seifert
2022, Greystone Books
ISBN 978-1-77164-662-8
Hardbound, 14 × 21.5 cm, 288 pp
$34.95 CAD / $26.95 USD

Although he is quite well known in professional mycological circles, Keith Seifert’s name might be unfamiliar to most of the mushroom crowd for, as the subtitle of his new book suggests, he has spent his productive career working with microfungi. He was a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, where he worked with fungi collected and cultured from farms, forests, food, and the built environment, to discover ways of reducing toxins and diseases affecting plants, animals, and other fungi. His specialties include the taxonomy of the asexual fungi known as hyphomycetes, especially genera such as Fusarium and Penicillium that include many mycotoxin-producing species. Seifert follows in the footsteps of many previous authors in presenting the fungi and their fascinating biology for a general audience. Some of these earlier works include Advance of the Fungi (E.C. Large, 1940), The Molds and Man: An Introduction to the Fungi (Clyde Christensen, 1951), Mushrooms & Toadstools: A Study of the Activities of Fungi (John Ramsbottom, 1953), Molds, Mushrooms, and Mycotoxins (Clyde Christensen, 1975), In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist’s Tale (Elio Schaechter, 1997), Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds: The Remarkable Story of the Fungus Kingdom and Its Impact on Human Affairs (George Hudler, 1998), Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: The Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists (Nik Money, 2002), Fungi (the “new Ramsbottom” [I highly recommend it], Brian Spooner and Peter Roberts, 2005), The Kingdom Fungi: The Biology of Mushrooms, Molds, and Lichens (Steve Stephenson, 2010), Mushrooms: The Natural and Human World of British Fungi (Peter Marren, 2012), and a recent addition, The Lives of Fungi: A Natural History of Our Planet’s Decomposers (Britt Bunyard, 2022).  

The main content is divided into three parts and nine chapters — Part 1: The Hidden Kingdom (Chapter 1: Life in the Colonies: Fungal Evolution; Chapter 2: Life on the Commons: From Mutualism to Parasitism to Biological Invasion), Part 2: The Fungal Planet (Chapter 3: Forests: Seeing the Fungi for the Trees; Chapter 4: Farming: The Seventh-Oldest Profession; Chapter 5: Fermentation: Food, Drink, and Compost; Chapter 6: The Secret House: Fungi and the Built Environment; Chapter 7: Holobiont: The Mycobiome and the Human Body), Part 3: The Mycelial Revolution (Chapter 8: Mycotechnology: Fungi for the People; Chapter 9: Thirty Thousand Feet: Fungi and the Sustainable Planet). The book concludes with an appendix giving an up-to-date view of fungal classification, notes supporting the text, a lengthy list of references, and the index.  

The text is well written and is authoritative in Seifert’s areas of expertise. It is supported with abundant notes that, in many cases, lead to citations in the lengthy Literature Cited section. This will be a big help to those who want to go beyond the information in the text and get a fuller understanding of the subject.  

Unfortunately, those who enjoy visuals will be disappointed. The book is almost un-illustrated, with only a handful of nicely-rendered black and white line drawings on the first page of the chapters, plus a few more in the appendix. Although most of Seifert’s pet fungi admittedly are not particularly photogenic, there are many places where a color photo or illustration would have broken the monotony of black-and-white text and enhanced the presentation.  

In addition, when Seifert’s text moves into areas outside his specialties, some overgeneralizations and other not quite- right bits creep in. For instance, “A common set of biochemical pathways hums along in the cells of all organisms ... powered within cells by tiny engines known as mitochondria.” While true for nearly all eukaryotes, it isn’t for prokaryotes. “A vast hyperbranched root and hyphal framework links all the trees in a forest into a unified network.” This is overstated. It probably is never strictly true beyond a limited area and certainly isn’t in the case of a mixed arbuscular mycorrhizal ectomycorrhizal forest. Use of the terms “mycorrhiza” and “mycorrhizal fungus” is muddled. “Although trees can survive without mycorrhizae” is true IF we supply them with water and nutrients. They rarely, if ever, are found in nature without fungal partners.  

That matsutake “tend to grow in degenerated forests” is not true. While they usually occur in areas with poor low-nutrient soils, the forests are not “degenerated.” This contention was advanced by a California sociologist whose writings show virtually no understanding of fungal biology and forest ecology. Farming of fungi by certain ants and termites is not an example of symbiosis as they lack the intimate living together as a single entity required by the strict definition. If one wants to claim the mutualistic relationships between farmers and crops to be symbioses then we would have to consider ourselves symbionts of maize, tomatoes, and kale, not to mention portobello mushrooms.  

“Citizen Science: A New Relationship with Fungi ... Contributing fresh observations and data to science is no longer restricted to people with PhDs in industry and academia.” There is nothing new about this, at least with respect to mycology. Amateurs have long been important contributors to the knowledge of fungi, particularly in Europe (for a recent example, consider the Fungi of Switzerland series of books).  

But I can find things like that to quibble about in just about any book. However, this one has long runs of pages that escaped my penciled notations and that should be taken as a good sign. Although adding some illustrations and color would have been very welcome, this is still an interesting and informative read and I recommend it for those wishing to increase their knowledge of the fifth kingdom and its importance to our lives.

— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi