'Magic' mushrooms set forest aglow in mesmerising display

They may look like something from a Disney fairytale, but these funky funghi are very much real.

And right now, visitors to the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in northeastern Goa, India, are being treated to one of nature’s most mesmerising spectacles, a rush of bioluminescent mushrooms carpeting the forest floor.

The fungi, Mycena chlorophos, have burst into light following monsoon rains, and as dusk falls, glow an eerie green.

It is far from the first time the phenomenon has been seen – Aristotle famously noted it – but that doesn’t make it any less breathtaking for those witnessing this latest display.

Nor is it unique to mushrooms – algae, insects and even some species of sharks can all glow in the dark.

‘It looks like the mushroom is making its own light, and it’s quite magical,’ said Jay Dunlap, professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

He explains how the fungi transform themselves from brown and beige into glowing green.

‘It’s due to an enzymatic reaction,’ said Professor Dunlap, speaking to Radio 4’s Today.

‘The enzyme luciferase works on a substrate called luciferase, which oxygises the luciferin and makes a high-energy intermediate [molecules that can be broken down to release large amounts of energy]. The enzyme holds this substrate and causes the energy to be emitted as light instead of heat.’

The result? A dazzling display of nature at her finest. 

Similar reactions occur in other glowing species, but why organisms display bioluminescence varies. Some are trying to attract mates, others to deter would-be predators, a warning of ‘I’m poisonous, don’t eat me’ said Professor Dunlap.

In the case of Mycena chlorophos – known as the ‘night-light mushroom’ or ‘Green Pepe’ in Japan – it is to help reproduction.

The big question

Is Mycena chlorophos poisonous?

While these mushrooms may not taste very nice if you ate them, they are not poisonous.

‘One use is helping fungi get from place to place,’ said Professor Dunlap. ‘The green light is attractive to insects who come and eat them, and when they come they get covered in spores and carry them around the forest, so it’s beneficial to the fungi.’

Amateur etymologists may have spotted the similarity between luciferase, luciferin and Lucifer, one of the devil’s many monikers. However, while they have the same root word, there’s nothing satanic about these shrooms. All descend from the Latin term lucifer, meaning ‘light bringer’.

For those lucky enough to see Mycena chlorophos at their finest, ‘joy bringer’ may be a more apt term. As Professor Dunlap said, ‘this is the beauty of biology’.

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