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Giant Fungus in Michigan Could Be World’s Largest Living Organism

April 2, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ The biggest living thing in the world may be neither the blue whale nor California’s giant sequoia, but a fibrous white glob that lives underground in Michigan.

The malodorous but magnificent being is armillaria bulbosa, a fungus. Some 38 acres of soil in a northern oak forest have been colonized by a single armillaria plant at least 1,500 years old, according to a report being published Thursday in the journal Nature.

Scientists confirmed the existence of the subterranean behemoth by testing its progeny, the edible fungi known as honey mushrooms that pop up in the woods by the hundreds after rains in the summer and fall.

All the armillaria bulbosa mushrooms growing in a triangular area more than five football fields across had the same genetic fingerprint, identifying them as coming from a single plant.

The largest part of the armillaria mushroom plant is an underground mass of cord-like tendrils called rhyzomes, which live under a few feet of soil and send up shoots that feed off of dead or diseased wood. The mushrooms are the fruit of the plant.

The authors, professors Myron L. Smith and James B. Anderson of the University of Toronto and Johann N. Bruhn of Michigan Technological University, said a conservative estimate of the weight of the plant would be 100 tons, about the same as an adult blue whale.

Giant sequoias can weigh as much as 1,000 tons, but much of that is deadwood that has accumulated over years of growth.

Based on the observed growth rates for cultures of the fungus, the authors estimate it is at least 1,500 years old. A 1928 fire destroyed a forest at the site, but the heat-resistant armillaria lived on, underground.

Lichens that are more than 10,000 years old have been discovered in the Antarctic. The oldest recorded tree was a 5,100-year-old bristlecone pine cut down in Nevada.

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