hand holding mushroom spore print

Mushroom Spores and The Wild Ways They Work

The not-so-humble spore can fling into the air with rocket force and still produce trippy mushrooms—here's how.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated August 7, 2021

The fruiting body of mushrooms get a lot of fanfare, and rightfully so. They can be culinary delicacies worth their weight in gold, facilitate psychedelic experiences, or send you to the emergency room, but the mushroom cap isn’t the only interesting part of the fungi. Mushroom spores are easy to overlook, but these microscopic reproductive cells are incredibly fascinating.

Thanks to their unique structure, spores have the ability to survive in extremely inhospitable environments, like space! There is also a specific type of fungi that produces spores that can infect insects, turn them into zombies, and use their bodies to help spread more spores! So, it’s easy to see why spores have served as an inspiration for science fiction and horror movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The best sci-fi is typically based on natural phenomena that bring us to awe, and spores definitely fit the bill. 

No matter how you choose to enjoy your mushrooms, it all starts with a spore! So let’s take a deeper look at how mushrooms, and cultivators, use spores to meet their needs.

How Do Mushroom Spores Work? The Spore Life Cycle

Spores represent the first stage of the mushroom’s life cycle. Even though fungi are more closely related to animals than plants from an evolutionary standpoint, when it comes to their reproduction, mushrooms share a lot more in common with the plant kingdom.

For example, similar to plants like moss, the vast majority of fungi use spores to reproduce. Spores are composed of a single cell and set of chromosomes; however, housed inside each mushroom spore is all the material required to create a new primary mycelium, the name for the web-like roots of the mushroom buried in the earth. In other words, the fungi reproduce asexually—growing through mitotic division. Yet, it’s worth noting that fungi can also produce sexually. through their hyphae, the name for the hair-like cells that make up mycelium. The route that a fungi takes to reproduce is influenced by its environmental conditions, as well as the type of fungi.

mushroom life cycle
Spores represent the first stage of the mushroom’s life cycle.

Fungi are also similar to plants in that their fruiting body, the mushroom,  is physically rooted in their environment (sessile). Unlike animals, mushrooms do not have the ability to get up and move to a different environment if conditions demand. If a mushroom wants to move into a new habitat, it only has two choices. It can either grow into it or scatter spores onto it. It’s a different story for mycelium. Hyphae can grow and spread quickly under the soil. Their soon-to-be spore-bearing fruiting bodies pop up above ground when conditions are just right. 

Spores are so small that you will not be able to see a single spore with just your eyes, but they are easy to see en masse. For example, if you have ever disturbed a mature mushroom in the wild, you probably noticed a puff of what looked like smoke or dust coming off the mushroom. Mushrooms are able to produce billions of spores from their gills on the underside of the mushroom cap, and that puffball you see is made up of those spores. 

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Spores are uniquely designed to survive in unfavorable environments for extended periods of time. Oh, and there are a lot of them. Spores are literally floating all around us, and each one of these microscopic cells is searching for an environment that is suitable for growth. This can be around a leaky pipe in your home or in your lungs. Some estimate that we inhale up to ten billion a day! But, before spores can start growing anywhere, they need to get released from the mushroom. It makes perfect sense that mushrooms would come up with an interesting way to do this too!

How Do Mushroom Spores Spread? All About Ballistospores

Spores are formed inside the gills on sterigma, which are extensions of spore-bearing structures called basidium. In order to leave their mushroom home, spores need to be forcibly discharged. They can do this in one of two ways. 

Some fungi require external forces to shake the spores free. They employ strong odors and vibrant colors to attract animals that can agitate the mushroom and knock the spores free from the gills. This results in a puffball of spores that can be carried by the wind or animal that came into contact with the mushroom. 

Other fungi have specialized internal mechanisms that discharge their spores. In short, the mushroom utilizes a sugary secretion and the humid air inside the gills to capture condensation at the point where the spore connects to the sterigma. Shifts in surface tension of the moisture springs the spore free from the sterigma. These projectile spores are referred to as ballistospores

mushroom releasing spores
In order to leave their mushroom home, spores need to be forcibly discharged. | via Flickr

Even though these ballistospores leave with the force of a rocket, they don’t go far. They are so small that they quickly feel the effects of air resistance and gravity. They leave with just enough force to remove themselves from the sterigma, but not enough to shoot themselves into another gill and get stuck. 

Ejecting from the sterigma is just the beginning of the journey for the spore. There are still obstacles that can keep it from reaching a desirable destination. Thankfully, the mushroom is structured to help spores reach their goal.

The Function of Mushroom Gills 

Not all spores are destined for a long migration. A lot of them end up just below the mushroom cap, and there is always a risk that a spore gets blown back into the gills. Fortunately, mushrooms produce so many spores (billions) that they can afford to lose a few.

Mushrooms have a few structural advantages that help increase the odds of spores finding their way to a new home. For example, the gap between the v-shaped gills of mushrooms increases as you go from the innermost part to the outer part. This means that the spores that grow on the outer parts of the mushroom cape are less likely to get stuck.

mushroom gills
Mushrooms have a few structural advantages that help increase the odds of spores finding their way to a new home.

The gills of a mushroom grow with gravity. This means, even if a mushroom does not grow completely straight or develops a lean, the gills will grow straight to the ground. This ensures that when spores fall, they are not being collected by a part of the gill that is tilted with the mushroom’s body. 

Like all species, fungi have developed characteristics that improve their chances of survival. Through sheer numbers and structural design, fungi are incredibly equipped to survive the most inhospitable of environments. I mean, it’s almost scary.

Mushroom Spores for Growing 

Mushroom spores are responsible for creating more mushrooms, so it makes sense that they would be used by mushroom cultivators; however, spores are generally used as a way to store genetics rather than a primary way to produce mushrooms. 

Compared to other cultivation methods, spores are more difficult to work with than other kinds of mushroom material—like mycelium. With spores, you are required to start at the very beginning of the mushroom’s life cycle, which means there are more steps for things to go wrong.

In short, spores represent fresh genetics to cultivators. So, when a culture is starting to show signs of genetic degradation (an inevitability), you can use spores to get a fresh set of genetics and, thus, a strong mushroom culture. 

Cultivators typically use spores in three different ways to meet their needs: spore prints, spore syringes, and spore swabs.

What are Spore Prints?

Spore prints are probably the easiest to make. All you have to do is carefully remove a fully matured mushroom cap from its stem, place it gills down on a piece of tin foil, and give it some time. It can take anywhere from an hour to a day to get a solid print—depending on the maturity of the mushroom.

Read: How to Make a Spore Print

Spore prints are very easy to store for extended periods of time. When properly stored, they can last for years if not decades. The downside to working with spore prints is that there is a high degree of contamination and it is harder to get successful inoculations compared to other methods. 

mushroom spore print
Cultivators typically use spores in three different ways to meet their needs: spore prints, spore syringes, and spore swabs.

What are Spore Syringes? 

Spore syringes are also a great way to utilize spores for cultivation. It is essentially spores and sterilized water stored in a syringe. The spore syringes will keep for weeks instead of years, but they are super versatile and reusable. 

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Other perks of using a spore syringe are that they are widely available, easy to use, and offer a high success rate for inoculation, and, since spores do not carry any psilocybin, it is legal in many places of the world to purchase magic mushroom spores and get them delivered to you. 

Availability is also a great thing for spore syringes because they are not easy to make. There is a high probability of contamination, and it is also difficult to see contamination issues before you start your inoculation process. It can be disheartening to spend hours working on a culture, only to find that your syringe was contaminated.

What are Spore Swabs?

Lastly, spore swabs are a great tool to use if you like using agar plates during cultivation. They are easy to use and, compared to the other spore cultivation methods, it is easier to spot contamination before you start inoculating.

Spore swabs do have a few drawbacks. They are not easy to make, they can only be used with agar plates, and they can only be used once. Spore swabs are also widely available for purchase; however, spore syringes seem to have the largest market share.

It is clear that every type of cultivation process that relies on spores will have a downside. The trick is finding the way that works best for you and practicing until you get the results you want. Especially if you are interested in storing the genetics of your favorite mushrooms!

Closing Thoughts on Safety

Spore infestation is not only something you find in science fiction movies. Spores present a very real health risk to anyone they encounter. Too many spores can wreak havoc on your lungs—especially if you have allergies or asthma. 

It is the reason that black mold in your home is such a big deal. So, if you are going to work with something like a Martha fruiting chamber, be sure to get plenty of air ventilation in your grow operation to avoid allergic reactions or something more serious. 

Remember, each mushroom has the ability to shoot billions of ballistospores into the air every day. These spores are strong enough to survive space travel and are just looking for a hospitable place to settle in. Make sure the only place they find to settle is the place you want them to.

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