“First off, I want to thank you all for having me here today. I must say; I’m honoured. Now, before I start, I need to refer to a few of the other talks that have been given here, so that you can better appreciate where I’m coming from.
In 2008, Paul Stamets stood up here and told you 6 ways mushrooms can save the world. When he did, he revealed the amazing structure of mycelium that permeates the soil of our planet. These vast – yet tiny – interconnected webs, which look, to me, strikingly like the neurological structures of the brain, convey nutrients across entire forests. But as well as nutrients, he speculated that they might carry information, and described them as “Earth’s natural Internet”. He also introduced us to the largest living organism on the planet – in eastern Oregon – a twenty-two hundred acre, two-thousand year-old mycelial mat that is just one cell wall thick.
In 2009, Bonnie Bassler revealed that her team had discovered that bacteria, one of the smallest, simplest forms of life on the planet, can talk. Using specific molecules to communicate, they can organise group behaviour. Bonnie’s team also figured out how to talk to these bacteria; how to tell the malign bacteria not to go virulent, and how to tell the benign bacteria to work better.
Subsequent studies of the Oregon mycelial mat have found, amongst the usual series of nutrient transfers, a number of chemical compounds being transferred across vast distances that could not be explained – they had, so far as we could tell, no nutritional or anti-bacterial purpose. Eventually, a signals analysis team took a crack at it and concluded that, indeed, it was in fact a form of information transmission. These chemical bursts left traces; such that we are able to see the entire record of what can only be called a conversation, going back two thousand years. Once they figured out that it was a form of communication, it was only a matter of time before they figured out what it was communicating.
Some six hundred miles away, in Utah, is a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen – essentially an entire forest made up of genetically identical copies of one tree, all connected by a unified root structure, covering one hundred and seven acres, and estimated to be some eighty thousand years old, which is known as Pando, The Trembling Giant. Researchers studying it found the exact same chemical sequences in its root structure.
Somehow, over a distance of six hundred miles, these two organisms have been communicating for the last two thousand years.
The question then became, “what are they saying?”
The scientists first tried to date individual messages, to see if they could connect them at all to known environmental variables. This, however, proved a failure – the patterns in the messages did not seem to correspond to any known environmental history. They did, however, determine that the mycelial mat and Pando both secreted different kinds of chemicals, and consequently were able to show that the conversation was distinctly a back-and-forth affair; each organism sending out one message, and then the other replying. Once they realised this, it was only a matter of time before they figured it out.
They are playing a game.
That was when they called me in. They showed me the data, and, with help from the signals analysis team, I was able to figure out the rules of this game. It turned out, however, to be nothing like chess. The key metaphor of the game, somewhat understandably, is one of branching. The idea is that one sends out tendrils, seeking to capture territory, whilst simultaneously blocking off one’s opponent. It is, structurally, more similar to Go.
This game, as I have said, has been progressing for the last two thousand years. It takes place, naturally, at the speed of fungus, which is to say: not especially quickly by human standards. Pando, presumably as a consequence of his seventy-eight thousand years of experience over the mycelium, is winning.
He shan’t get to declare victory, however, for another twelve thousand years.”