Super mushrooms: 5 ways fungi can save the world
Mushrooms can add flavor to your dinner, but that’s not all they can do. They can improve lives and ecosystems. You could even say mushrooms and fungi can save the world!
As prolific decomposers, fungi can break down undesirable compounds and fabricate useful compounds and structures.
By applying fungi to new situations, researchers have found methods for capturing carbon, helping mental and bodily health, cleaning up oil spills, mass-producing chemicals, and restoring forest floors.
1) Fungi as a carbon sink
It’s easy to assume that the majority of carbon in a forest is stored by trees or plants, but in some northern forest ecosystems, researchers are finding the biggest reservoirs of carbon are made by fungi.
“Most of the stored carbon in boreal forested islands in Sweden is in fact derived from mycorrhizal mycelium rather than from plant litter."
Roots and Associated Fungi Drive Long-Term Carbon Sequestration in Boreal Forest
Mycorrhizal mycelium is a type of fungus that lives near the roots of trees, capturing carbon and preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere. This fungi actually helps with carbon storage in two different ways: it captures carbon independently and it also accelerates the ability of the trees near it to store carbon.
While mycorrhizal mycelium may hold the key to forests capturing more carbon, it is currently under attack from nitrogen pollution! In areas with double the exposure to nitrogen, the area of forest covered by mycelium shrinks by nearly half. When you compare maps of pollution with maps of fungus, you can see a strong geographic link between the presence of nitrogen and a reduction of mycorrhizal mycelium fungus.
Fortunately, people can take action to support mycelium by reducing nitrogen emissions. Since fossil fuel–burning power plants are a major source of nitrogen oxide, switching to renewable energy such as wind and solar can help fungi make a comeback. If switching power sources isn’t possible, nitrogen scrubbing technologies can be implemented to greatly reduce emissions.
2) Health benefits of Mushrooms
“Natural resources, especially fungi, are a best known factory for their metabolic capacity to produce a broad diversity of bioactive metabolites. These can be extremely toxic, e.g., mycotoxins, or be rather useful because they can be used as drugs for various diseases.”
Fungi as chemical industries and genetic engineering for the production of biologically active secondary metabolites
Mushrooms for mental health
Though mushrooms have been used therapeutically for thousands of years, research is uncovering new potential for mental and bodily health.
While psychoactive psilocybin mushrooms (aka magic mushrooms) have shown promising results as part of therapy for major depressive disorder (MDD), there’s been a lack of high-quality double-blind clinical studies... until now.
As of 2021, the Usona Institute is conducting a major clinical research test with more than 100 participants to test the efficacy of psilocybin.
Based on the positive results of previous studies, The FDA awarded the study “breakthrough therapy” status, giving it the ability to be fast tracked for FDA approval. Current results are expected in May 2022.
Mushrooms for body health
For bodily health, mushrooms have been prescribed by doctors in Japan and China for over thirty years as a safe and effective supplement to cancer therapy.
In the US, efforts to get mushrooms medically approved for cancer therapy are in their infancy but there is growing interest and growing research including FDA-approved studies of the effects of turkey tail mushrooms extract on prostate cancer.
Cancer isn’t the only potential condition mushrooms might help.
Lion’s mane, chaga, and reishi have all shown positive results for cancer patients as well.‡
Though results are preliminary, the health effects of mushrooms are promising and worthy of future investigation. They contain a wide variety of compounds that have complex interactions with health and have many opportunities for benefits.
3) Mushrooms that clean up oil spills
Mushrooms are known for decomposing abilities, so why not deploy them to decompose undesirable compounds that have leaked into the environment?
Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are known to create enzymes that can decompose petrochemicals. It’s been shown to reduce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from 10,000 ppm to < 200 ppm in 16 weeks. This can turn toxic, inhabitable soil into soil that worms can live in.
This oil-eating potential isn’t just for oil spills on land. Enterprising researchers have discovered a salt-water-tolerant variety of oyster mushroom and developed a mechanism to get them into cleanup zones in the ocean. Long floating tubes of straw colonized with oyster mushroom mycelium can be launched into oil spills where they can metabolize toxic hydrocarbons. After the oyster mushrooms are done growing, these MycoBoom™ tubes will degrade on their own, cleaning the ocean and leaving minimal waste.
Where oil spills come into shore, scientists have discovered oil digesting fungi found on beaches. Though there are no therapies in place currently, this fungus which thrives in sand environments could potentially be propagated to help a beach recover after a spill.
4) Fungi for chemical production
Before cats, dogs, or goats or any other mammal, it’s likely that humans first domesticated fungi because fungi are necessary for many of the culinary discoveries of early humans including bread, beer, and wine.
The most famous of these fungi is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast that is responsible for generating CO2 in fizzy drinks, the bubbles in bread, and the alcohol in your gin and tonic. It’s hard to imagine modern human life without yeast and it may play an even bigger role in the future.
Yeasts have the potential to replace fossil fuels with biofuels. Renewable ethanol made by yeast is already in use at the gas pump as an additive.
Fuel isn’t the only industrially relevant chemical made by yeasts. Ethyl acetate, arabinitol, glycerol and acetate are all useful compounds that can be made by yeast.
While industrial chemical production using yeast aka bio-refining is promising, it is still currently underutilized. Throughout the world there is abundant biomass from municipal waste, agricultural waste, plant residues and industrial wastes that could be sustainably turned into useful chemicals. Yeast is also getting more productive than ever as stress-tolerant strains are being made with CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. The technology to make bio-refining work everywhere has already been produced. All it needs is engineering to turn it into a widespread reality.
5) Mushrooms that protect the environment
Emissions aren’t the only way car-based transit damages the environment. The existence of roads themselves interferes with the hydrological patterns of nature, hurting and killing wildlife.
While it’s impossible to remove all roads, there are thousands of unused logging roads cutting through wilderness areas that are creating damage and could be removed. Silt runoff from old dirt logging roads can wreak havoc on ecosystems. When it gets into rivers and streams, it can kill local fish populations.
The process of decommissioning old logging roads is already underway in some places, but the conventional method of blocking off the entrance and letting nature reclaim is slow to repair the harm. The other conventional option of bulldozing the road away is very labor intensive. Mushrooms provide an alternative way that rapidly rewilds the landscape, is reversible, and requires only moderate effort.
Normally, it can take decades for the forest to grow over a densely packed unpaved road. Mushrooms offer a way to accelerate the process to just a few years, creating a forest floor that fights erosion and makes way for plants.
To do mushroom reclamation, oyster mushrooms are spread with wood chips on a road. Over the course of three years, they form a patchwork of mycelium that prevents erosion, stopping silt from contaminating waterways and hurting wildlife.
Mushroom reclamation is less intensive than using heavy excavation equipment to reshape the landscape and the process is far more reversible. If the road needs to be recommissioned, the mushroom and woodchip layer can be scraped off.
More mushroom reading
With our five ways fungi will save the world, we’re really just scratching the surface. For more information about the potential benefits and applications of fungi, check out the book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets and the documentary Fantastic Fungi on Netflix.
‡These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.