Image of mushroom gills.

These starburst marks are made by mushroom spores

Mushrooms are strange looking things that grow out of the ground, but what do they actually do? Uncover their secrets, and find the beautiful starburst they have hiding inside them!

sharp hazard iconrotten food hazard iconSafety: Use a mushroom suitable for eating, such as one from a supermarket. Wild mushrooms can be poisonous. This activity uses a sharp knife. Ask an adult to help.

You will need

  • Large flat mushroom
  • White cardboard
  • Small kitchen knife
  • Chopping board

What to do

  1. Mushroom on a chopping board, gill side up.Put the mushroom on your chopping board.
  2. Trimming the underside of the mushroom with a sharp knife.Look at the underside of your mushroom. Trim away any skin that curls under and gets in the way of the gills.
  3. Pulling off the stem of the mushroom.Carefully pull off the stem, or carefully cut it away with your knife.
  4. Put the mushroom on the cardboard, underside down.
  5. Mushroom lying gill side down on a piece of paper.Find a spot for your experiment that won’t be disturbed. Make sure it’s away from open windows, fans and moving air.
  6. Wait a day.
  7. Image of the gills of a mushroom.Carefully take the mushroom off the cardboard, and admire the starburst on the page!

What’s happening?

Where did the starburst shape come from? Something inside the mushroom has come out! The starburst marks are made by spores that have fallen out from between the mushroom’s stripey gills. These spores are a bit like seeds for fungi – if a spore finds a nice place to land, it’ll grow into a fungus.

While mushrooms might look like strange little plants, they’re not. They’re from a different kingdom of life called fungi. Mushrooms do have something in common with a plant’s fruit though. While a fruit is packed with seeds, a mushroom’s gills are packed with spores. This is why scientists call a mushroom a fruiting body.

If a mushroom is just the fruiting part of a fungus, what does the rest of this fungus look like? It’s a tangled network of threads called hyphae. They grow underground and in dead wood, searching for food and nutrients.

For more about the science of food, subscribe by 28 February and receive the next issue of Double Helix magazine. We’ve got advice on being a food adventurer, and there’s a fun, strategic game about growing mushrooms. Plus, it’s packed with science news, reviews, activities and competitions for you to enjoy!

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