Cornell University

A fungus walks into a singles bar

Mutinus-still

During a radio interview once the host asked me to explain fungal sexuality. My answer was a bit too intricate and long to make it into the broadcast–I got bogged down in the details. It’s not that you need a PhD to understand how fungi have sex, it’s just that it’s a most unfamiliar kind of system, in which analogies to human sexuality will get you in trouble. People occasionally ask me about this, and I’ve really never come up with a solid, succinct answer. So I thought I’d have a try at a kind of introduction to the sex life of fungi–at least the part that has to do with sexual compatibility. You tell me what’s unclear, and maybe we can collaboratively improve this piece.


My gift to you: 2.5 days worth of emergence by the dog stinkhorn, Mutinus caninus. It is here mainly to provide an outlet for your anthropomorphizing. The spores of this stinkhorn are its sexual offspring. They are produced in the stinky green goop on the head of the thing. Further words elude me, but for more stinkhorn sauciness, have a look at Michael Kuo’s Stinkhorn Hall of Fame and our own other stinkhorn posts. Time lapse video by Kent Loeffler.

The trickiest concept for discussing fungal sex is “gender.” In humans, there are men and there are women (from a strictly reproductive point of view), and it takes one of each to make a baby. The male donates some genetic material (a gamete, the sperm), which is received by a female gamete (the egg), and those gametes get together to form a new human. We trust you’re all familiar with this scene.

Among fungi, any individual can donate or receive genetic material–so you can already see we need to let go of the concept of gender. Let’s talk instead in terms of what mycologists call mating types. A fungus simply needs to find a mate of a different mating type. Of the fungi you might be familiar with, hmm, most species have only two mating types (they’re bipolar), and some have four or more possible mating types (they’re tetrapolar). Any particular individual of a species is just one mating type, of course. Most molds have two; many mushrooms and bracket fungi have four or more. A few fungi, like the unassuming split gill, Schizophyllum commune, have more than ten thousand!

In the same way that our genders are controlled by our genetics (Kathie has two X chromosomes; Bradford has an X and a Y), mushroom mating types are determined by genes. In mushrooms, either one or two sets of genes control the ability to mate. Mating type genes in fungi don’t confer secondary sexual traits like facial hair or Adam’s apples; they do control 500 to 1000 genes involved in the development of sexual structures and spores. Shockingly, either fungus partner can get pregnant (by making a mushroom), or be a dad (by delivering a gamete), or both. The whole division of labor thing is an animal quirk.

Now here is where it gets really crazy. If you haven’t shed your attachment to gender, now’s the time. In many large, charismatic fungi, genes at two different locations on the chromosomes control what’s called a tetrapolar mating system. In these fungi, two individuals must differ at both loci to make a good match. Now let’s say you’re one of these fungi. If at location MAT-A you have the A2 mating type allele, and at location MAT-B you have the B1 mating type allele, then your mating type is A2B1. You must find a partner who is different than you at both locations (may I suggest A1B2?). Your beautiful baby spores will be this mix: A1B1; A2B2; A1B2; and A2B1. If your babies should get together and try to mate (perish the thought), they will only succeed 25% of the time. Hello? You with me?

It got a little complex there, didn’t it? The deal is, a fungus just has to find a mate of a different mating type. So actually, when a species has a lot of mating types, it’s EASIER for an individual to find a mate, because the odds go up. In contrast to humans–a human can typically mate successfully (have kids, I mean) with about half the people in the room. But a fungus might find that nearly everybody on the dance floor is a potential mate. See?

Homosexual fungi? Well, not exactly. At least in the human version of homosexuality nobody’s going to get pregnant without some outside input. But there are some fungi that are self-compatible (homothallic)–they can have offspring without a partner. There are two ways to do this. One is to have copies of all the needed mating type alleles in each nucleus (in the majority of mushrooms, a spore contains only a single nucleus, and a haploid one at that). The other way to go is to pack two different, compatible nuclei into a spore, ready to mate. This latter method is how the common supermarket button mushroom does it. I know! It seems like such an ordinary mushroom.

The other kink of fungi (best friends forever?) is that even if they are not sexually compatible (because they are of the same mating type), different individuals of a species may be vegetatively compatible. An entirely different genetic compatibility system dictates whether they can fuse their mycelia to share resources, even though they’ll never have sex. Intriguingly, there are no sexually transmitted diseases among fungi, but there are myco-viruses that can be spread through vegetative compatibility. I’m sure there’s a “nonsexual STD” joke trapped inside this paragraph…

It’s all horribly interesting. There’s much more to say. But it is hard to get our minds around some of this stuff, just because we’re so used to the silly but familiar animal model.

p.s. Were you really expecting me to tell the joke? I’m not telling the joke.

Further reading:

Thank you, 7Song and Lawrence Millman, for your astute and/or cheeky comments.
Thank you Gillian Turgeon, for your sharp eye and for this advanced mindbender:
“Schizophyllum has two mat loci: A and B. Each of these carries an α and an β sublocus therefore we have AαAβBαBβ for an individual. For compatibility need to be different at Aα or Aβ and at Bα or Bβ. For e.g., Aα1Aβ1Bα1Bβ1 X Aα2Aβ1Bα1Bβ2 would be successful I think…”

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Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.

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