How do some mushrooms glow in the dark?

If you’re browsing the internet you’ll come across all sorts of glow in the dark mushrooms.

glowing mushroom

Some of these magical sightings will be fictional artefacts, embedded in fairytale games like Terraria for instance, where they can be harvested with a special axe. Sometimes you’ll even encounter Giant Glowing Mushrooms hidden among the small ones.

But there are also genuine glowing mushrooms in the real world. That’s what we’ll study in more details in this short glowing piece.

Who was the first writer to mention glowing mushrooms?

Aristotle wrote about the ethereal glow of fungi 2000 years ago but he didn’t know how these mushrooms could emit light in the dark.

It remained a mystery for the next 2000 years, until 2015. On March 19 of that year, researchers published an article in Current Biology which finally explained the mysterious phenomenon.

How can mushrooms glow in the dark?

Some mushrooms are bioluminescent. They emit their own light. You can find them in Brazil and in Vietnam. The compound which makes these mushrooms shine in the dark is called oxyluciferin.

The process was uncovered when a team of scientists understood that some fungi actually use luciferin to attract insects: beetles, flies, wasps and ants.

Glowing in the dark is for them a form of advanced seduction. It’s not about random bragging, they shine with a very specific purpose.

Why do glowing mushrooms need to attract insects?

Just as flowers love bees, mushrooms need insects to spread their spores, which helps their species thrive in the darkest forests. Nature gave them the gift of glowing in the dark.

fireflies glow in the dark mushrooms

Is the glow of mushrooms based on the same principle as the glow of some insects?

Yes, luciferin is precisely the compound which gives fireflies and some underwater creatures their magical glow. It’s exactly the same principle.

Glowing fungi contain luciferins and an enzyme which reacts with the compound to trigger light when needed to tease insects in the vicinity.

Apparently the enzyme contained in mushrooms could also react with other types of luciferins to generate a myriad of glowing shades.

glowing in the dark mushroom

How many types of mushrooms glow in the dark?

Out of 100,000 described fungal species only 71 produce light through the process we’ve just explained. That’s a very small number.

Interestingly researchers have found out that the trick is pretty smart: mushrooms tend to emit light only when it’s easy to see, i.e. in the dark, through a temperature-driven metabolic process.

The glowing mushroom feels it’s colder at night, when it’s time to turn the lights on! Nature will keep on surprising us.

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