Can Mushrooms Save The World?
Since the discovery of magic mushrooms we know about the powers of mushrooms. But only slowly we are starting to grasp their full magnificence: they can clean up oil spills and break down plastic.
When you say „mushroom“ around here, ears go up and eyes start to glow. But still many people only think of mushrooms as food, while in reality they are so much more than that. Fungi are one of the most important organisms within our world, as well as one of the oldest. And it‘s only now we are coming to realise how they can help us to clean up the great environmental mess we got us into.
A major leap has been the recent discovery of mushrooms can literally eat and break down plastic. Like some mushrooms feed on grain or dung, this fungus feeds on plastic. Considering the massive plastic pollution we‘re facing, that‘s massive discovery. Equally important are certain mushroom strains that eat oil. They hold the key to remediate polluted environments.
Paul Stamets: Mushroom Man
Before we continue to explore the magnificence of mushrooms, let‘s first look at the work of Paul Stamets, one of the leading minds behind the „mycoremediation“ movement. Stamets is a walking library, and his knowledge on the subject is unrivalled. In the recent years, he became widely known for his inspiring TED talks, in which he advocates fungi as a revolution in medicine, forestry, pesticides and pollution control – and this is just what he has personally researched so far. Stamets has no affiliation with any academic institution, he funds the majority of his research into mushrooms through the profits he makes from the private company he runs, Fungi Perfecti. So far, he has published six books on mushroom cultivation, use and identification. The book „Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms“ is considered one the first definitive guides to the indoor cultivation of exotic mushrooms.
The cellular intelligence of mycelium
Mycelium is the intricate web of fibrous tissue from which mushrooms grow. In fact, the mushroom is only the fruiting body of the mycelium. Stamets describes it as the „neurological network of nature”, a sort of “sentient membrane” that controls and influences “the long-term health of the host environment”. As he describes in his book „Mycelium Running“, the fine web of mycelium works miracles underground; over a large area, the mycelium connects roots of trees, all while closely monitoring their health. If one tree suffers from a lack of glucose, for example, the mycelium recognises this and supplies nutrients. This wondrous mechanism is called „mycorrhizae“. According to Stamets, mushrooms can be considered the immune system of an environment.
This network of tissue is a single cell threadlike membrane that spreads over the land, it absorbs rotting vegetation, covers forests and eventually fuses together to create mushrooms. Much like animals, it must absorb the energy of another living being to survive, and it does this by absorbing nutrients from its surroundings. “They have cellular intelligence,” Stamets says. “When you walk through the forest, they leap up in search of debris to feed on. They know you’re there.”
Mycoremediation - cleaning up with mushrooms
Mycoremediation is a term that was coined by Stamets. It basically means the bioremediation, or waste management, through the use of fungi. As previously mentioned, fungi have the potential to deal with a lot of the waste humans seem to leave behind, but how? Well, the ecological role of fungi is to decompose things. This is performed by the mycelium, which secretes extracellular enzymes and acids to break structures down. However, every type of fungus is specialised in some type of food. They key is to match right species for the matter that needs to be broken down. The applications are almost limitless, there are even strains of fungi that can break down chemical weapons such as weaponised small pox and sarin.
Plastic eating fungi
One major problem is the world’s largest waste product – plastic. In a recent expedition into the Ecuadorian rainforest by Yale researchers, a new fungi has been discovered that appears to have an insatiable appetite for plastic. Named Pestalotiopsis microspore, this fungi is the first to be found that can survive on a diet consisting of only polyurethane (a type of plastic). Not only this, but the process in which it breaks down plastic for food in anaerobic, meaning that it does not require oxygen. This is a good thing because there is not much oxygen to be found in the deepest layers of human landfill sites, so it will be able to go to work throughout it all.
However, chances are that the specific chemical in question that causes this breakdown will be isolated, synthesised, patented and commercialised and held back for the sake of profit – but let’s hope not.
Oil eating fungi
Another, extremely central application of fungi is in the clean-up of oil spills. Stamets has known of this potential for a very long time and has applied it where ever he can. Years ago, much before some of the major oil spills of recent history, Stamets teamed up with a company called Battelle Laboratories in order to figure out how best to deal with oil. They conducted an experiment in which 4 soil piles were soaked in petroleum. One pile was then treated with bacteria, another with enzymes, the third with mycelium - the last was left untreated, as a control. They were covered and allowed to sit for 6 weeks. After the 6 weeks they were uncovered to find that three of the piles were “dead, dark and stinky”. However, the one that had been treated with mycelium had grown a plethora of oyster mushrooms. After another 2 weeks the contamination ratios were tested. It was found that the pile that was treated with mycelium’s contamination had gone from 10,000 parts per million to 200 parts per million – a staggering difference.
What Stamets findings show, is that mycelium can be used to treat areas of contamination, even in places where no other life can grow. They can bring down toxicity to manageable levels, preparing it for next lifeforms to take over.
Stamets has since been testing the theory with practical applications. In one instance, he placed sacks saturated in mycelium downstream from an industrial plant that was known to be producing toxic waste. Waste water was cleaned as it came into contact with the sacks. At a later date, during the 2007 oil spill in San Francisco bay, Stamets donated $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms to the clean-up effort. They were used to break down the hair mats used to soak up the oil. The mushrooms turned the oil soaked mats into nutrient rich compost in just 12 weeks!
Endless applications - the solution for the environmental crisis?
Fungi show an incredible versatility - what was touched upon in this article barley touches the surface. Cleaning up our waste is probably going to be one of the most interesting uses, but Stamets shows a staggering amount of potential applications. Other interesting ones are:
To help prevent famine - Nutritious mushrooms can be grown quickly in refugee camps with very basic resources.
As a biofuel - Certain mushrooms can be turned into a biodiesel.
As a medicine - Mushrooms can produce new antibiotics and anti-viral compounds. Recent research even suggest that some species can be used to promote new brain cell growth and cure Post Traumatic Distress Disorder (PTSD).
Whilst many governments and agencies have been taking an extremely keen interest in the potential applications of mycelium and the mushrooms it produces, it may be a long while before we see them become a large part of our lives. As in many things, it just needs to be done by those who hear the calling. Mushrooms can save the world, and it‘s up to everyone to go out and make it happen.