The Magic Of Mushrooms!
mycelium & mushrooms
Mushrooms have a long history. Cultivated as early as 600 AD in China, but industrialized agriculturally only since the 20th century.
They are macrofungi and are the fruiting body produced by the fungi mycelium. Think of it as the mycelium being an enormous underground upside-down apple tree, and the mushrooms are the apples that we see springing from the ground as a result. It’s important to talk about mycelium first because it is the underbelly of our world. Mycelium is referred to as Earth’s natural internet by world-renowned microbiologist and mycologist Paul Stamets.
It is a complex communication network that connects all life on this planet. In fact, the largest known living organism on Earth is a fungus, mycelium, which is estimated to be around 2,400 years old and spreads over 3.4 square miles in Malheur National Forest, Oregon.
They colonize and allow plants and trees to communicate and share nutrients. Smaller seedlings that don’t get enough sun to photosynthesize can get nutrients from more giant trees. Trees in harm from chemicals, pests, and even deforestation can communicate with each other from miles away to better protect themselves – making mycelium essential for protecting biodiversity.
Another massive benefit to networking in the soil is that mycelium contributes to soil carbon sequestration through its pathways, which can also help to alleviate climate change.
DECOMPOSITION AND NUTRIENT RECYCLINGIf that wasn’t enough, mycelium and mushrooms play another huge role in our ecosystem – decomposing the organic materials of our world, allowing new life to grow through nutrient cycling. Without it, our forests and beyond would begin to pile up into mountains of dead organic matter – creating quite the post-apocalyptic scene. Plain and simple – Mushrooms, and the network of fungi that support them, are critical to our planet’s sustainability and survival. They have lived much longer than any of us and will continue to be here even if we are not.
mushrooms as food
In terms of food and nutrition, the edible varieties of mushrooms are superfoods. It is no secret that they provide ample vitamins and nutrients and are a delicacy in many of their varieties. They are a great source of fiber and protein. They can provide B vitamins, potassium, copper, and more. Mushrooms are antioxidants, shown to be pre-biotics (promoting a healthy gut), and mushrooms cultivated in light are a good source of Vitamin D.
Equitable Economic Growth and Food Security
Mushrooms are unique because one can find them in every part of the world, from rural to more industrialized areas – and they can be grown quickly, in the dark or light, and very efficiently – taking up less space than many traditional agricultural products. This is important because of world food shortages, especially in developing countries. The need for nutritious food for everyone on this planet is becoming vital in the conversation for food security.
Growing mushrooms is easy if you know what you’re doing, but it is labor-intensive. Thankfully, the mushroom industry is growing – it is a multi-billion dollar industry, allowing for more jobs opportunities in all parts of the world. One study shows that mushroom cultivation could be used in Bangledesh to alleviate poverty and improve the lifestyle of Bangledeshes most vulnerable. Mushrooms can also be grown in small batches domestically, making it accessible for more people to grow and meet their nutritional needs.
In other words, mushrooms can be a great sustainable source of income and household nutrition for communities worldwide.
mushrooms as medicine
Mushrooms are a functional food as well. Beyond their antioxidant and immune-boosting properties, mushrooms have many medical applications through science and through cultural use throughout time.
Today, you can find medicinal mushrooms in beauty products, pills, and even your morning coffee.
Studies show that extracts from mushrooms display antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory effects, protect our livers from disease, and prevent atheromas, reducing heart attacks and strokes.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom increases brain tissue regeneration and improves the mental capacities of those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Reishi mushrooms, the king of Traditional Chinese Medicine, not only increases immune health it holds anti-tumor properties and improves heart health.
Even a rare mushroom, agarikon, used in Ancient Greece to treat TB and Indigenous Peoples to treat smallpox – benefits that mycologist Paul Stamets and other researchers have verified.
Mushrooms can also be medicine for the mind. Classic psychedelic compounds like psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, have been used in religious ceremonies in indigenous societies in South and Central America for centuries.
They became stigmatized in the 1960s and 70s, and it was only recently that they entered back into the eye of modern science. In 2004, researchers began clinical trials on psilocybin to treat pain, anxiety, and depression in patients with advanced-stage cancer. And in September of 2020, the John Hopkins University built the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness research. Currently, they are being used in studies to treat Anxiety Disorders such as PTSD, OCD, and Depression, as well as drug and alcohol addiction, with long-term subjective effects such as increased altruism, pro-environmental behavior, and connectedness to nature observed.
Just as a reminder, this is not medical advice, so consult your doctor before incorporating mushrooms into your routine, and never eat a mushroom that you aren’t 100% sure what it is.
CROPS, BIOGAS, AND FERTILIZERAnother magical property of mushrooms is how they contribute to a circular economy. Current agriculture practices leave behind mass amounts of residue. And “Billions of tons of sawdust, wood chips, coffee pulps, spent ground coffee, brewery spent grains, cottonseed hulls, textile cotton waste, and cereal straw around the world discarded as waste.” Typically, this waste is burned or thrown into a landfill – polluting our environment. However, this type of waste is the perfect bed for edible and medicinal mushrooms to grow.
Oxford reports,” they biosynthesize their own food from agricultural crop residues, which, just like solar energy, is readily available and sustainable.”So it creates something beneficial instead of adding harm to us and the planet.
Spent MushroomsThat spent mushroom substrate or SMS creates a secondary disposal challenge. But again, mushrooms’ versatility comes to the rescue. This SMS can be used as biogas, a renewable energy source that we can use for fuel – reducing our need for fossil fuels. And we can even take it one step further because the residue created from the production of this biogas can be used again on our food crops as an organic fertilizer! But this SMS can also be used “as compost, as a substrate for other mushroom-forming fungi, as animal feed, to promote the health of animals, and to produce packaging and construction materials.” A quote from Oxford reads,
“We cannot expect the Earth to produce more—we have to do more with what the Earth already produces.”So from our crop waste, mushrooms create more food and medicine, then biogas, then fertilizer, and more – which helps us use fewer resources and live more sustainably. You may wonder about the fact that we spray our crops with pesticides. Still, studies show that this organic soil amendment can enhance the sustainable recycling of this pesticide residue, increasing its soil quality. But there is a potential solution to our crops’ harmful pesticides found in fungi as well.
Fungi can also be used as an organic pesticide. Again, our hero Paul Stamets discovered that you could use certain types of fungi as a way to safely and permanently treat over 200,000 species of insects – including the ones that damage crops.
This fungus attracts insects, which they then eat and turn into fungi from the inside out! But before it dies, it takes spores back to its nest – effectively killing the rest of the insects without using chemicals that contaminate our soil and water.
Once fully developed and released, this could revolutionize our pesticide use. And information from Stamets on this MycoPesticide tells us that this “fungus can be trained, through natural selection, to be species-specific in its targeting, so that this fungus does not harm other non-targeted insects.” Making it non-harmful to bees or other pollinator insects. Paul’s philosophy is that
“We do not wage war against insects. We just want to protect our homes, crops, or bees without causing collateral harm to the ecosystem.”
But what about the ecosystem we’ve already damaged? Due to Industrialization and the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides, we face substantial environmental problems such as the contamination of our soil, water, and air.
I mentioned earlier that Fungi are among nature’s most powerful decomposers. Fungi is crucial in mycoremediation, a form of bioremediation that uses fungi instead of bacteria to break down toxic waste and pollutants in an efficient, economical, eco-friendly way.
Mycelium fungi can eradicate pollutants from our environment unless the chemicals prove toxic to the fungus. Through mycoremediation – we can treat persistent and harmful contaminants from our air, soil, and water. Pollutants like: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAH) (one of the major pollutants released in the environment through coal, wood, and petroleum), antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides, antifungal drugs, detergents, heavy metals, and plastics.
Research at the Department of Botany tells us that “White-rot fungi are increasingly being investigated and used in bioremediation because of their ability to degrade an extremely diverse range of very persistent or toxic environmental pollutants” – including those PAHs occurring in coal tar and crude oil.
Work by Stamets shows that Oyster mushroom mycelium can produce on oil-contaminated soil, and it is tolerant to saltwater exposure, making it a potential option for oil spill clean-ups. This type of mushroom can also eat plastic!
Along with the Oyster Mushroom, students at Yale found another plastic-eating mushroom in the Amazon rainforest. This variety can survive on plastic alone without light or air.
the current state of mushrooms
So why isn’t everyone adopting the magic of mushrooms?!
For one, there is a lot of stigmas that surround mushrooms and fungi. Secondly, there is little funding or investment in the research for mycology – putting citizen scientists at the forefront of making these discoveries.
And, even though there are over 14,000 known species of mushrooms and millions of species of fungi – they are still largely unexplored. Furthermore, we will not determine their potential benefits for society and our environment if they are extinct before we even discover them.
Human activities such as deforestation and human-induced climate change negatively affect the mushroom population leading to loss of biodiversity, decelerated rate of nutrient recycling that is critical for ecosystem function, and depleted potential habitats.
We need to preserve our land, feed our world, and use more innovative eco-friendly methods to sustain ourselves on this planet – and I believe mushrooms are the way. The multi-beneficial properties of mushrooms shouldn’t be gate-kept as a luxury for the few but a necessity for all people on this planet.
To help make this a reality, you can learn more about fungi and mushrooms and spread the word.
something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on, I encourage you to expand on your knowledge. Follow up this podcast by watching the Documentary Fantastic Fungi or Paul Stamets TED Talk on the 6 Ways Mushrooms can save the world.
Then, I encourage you to get out in nature if you can. Take your phone and use a Mushroom ID app, or go old school if you can find a mushroom identification book – and see what mushrooms you can find around you. The best way we can connect with nature is to be in it.
Finally, tell your friends, family, literally anyone who will listen about mushrooms! We have to break the stigma!
I’ll leave you with a quote from the work of Chang and Miles on mycelium,
“Without leaves, without buds, without flowers, yet, they form fruit; as a food, as a tonic, as a medicine, the entire creation is precious.”
And precious it is.
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