The wonders of mycelium.
Image: Conor Lawless/Flickr
The collapse of our planet's natural ecosystem is accelerating, but it turns out nature may have already developed the technology to save us. And it's right under our feet.
Mycelium is the vast, cotton-like underground fungal network that mushrooms grow from—more than 2,000 acres of the stuff forms the largest known organism on Earth. Omnipresent in all soils the planet over, it holds together and literally makes soil through its power to decompose organic and inorganic compounds into nutrients. It has incredible powers to break up pollutants, filter water, and even treat disease, and it's the star of a film called Fantastic Fungi that's currently raising funds to bring awareness to how we can wield its many properties to save the world.
"Mycelium offers the best solutions for carbon sequestration, for preserving biodiversity, for reducing pollutants, and for offering us many of the medicines that we need today, both human and ecological," says famed mycologist Paul Stamets, who's the main voice of the film.
A regular keynote speakerat major think-a-thons like TED, Stamets has authored several seminal books on fungi, and done groundbreaking research on the medicinal, environmental, and ecological power of fungus with the likes of the Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, and Centers for Disease Control. He's also filed more patents and research papers than you can shake a mushroom stick at—not to mention that his signature hat is made of fungus.
"Fungi, I think, hold the greatest potential solutions for overcoming the calamities that we face," he says.
The apparent intelligence of mycelium lead Stamets call it "nature's internet." If a plant is harmed, mycelium tied up with its roots transmits the warning to other connected plants (turns out most plant life is part fungus). It's responsive, reacting immediately to disruptions in its environment to find a way to make it into food for itself and, thus, everything around it. Mycelium can also learn to consume compounds it's never encountered before, breaking them down into nutrients for countless other organisms, and sharing the knowledge throughout its network.
This adaptive power can be applied in amazing ways. Stamets and co. showed the critical role mycelium plays in mitigating bee colony collapse and filtering bacteria like E. Coli out of water. When removed of spores, certain strains become potent attractors for termites and other pests. A side-by-side comparison showed that oyster mushrooms were superior for breaking down pollutant hydrocarbons into basic nutrients that in turn fed foraging insects and animals, a process called mycoremediation. Mycelium was also literally trained to eat VX, the nerve agent used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1988.
All this speaks to a wide range of critical roles fungus has played in our past, and how it may be essential to our future if we choose to embrace it.
Conversations about fungi inevitably drift toward psilocybin and its mind-expanding properties. While it's also being researched for uses in less cosmic concerns like breaking addiction and treating cancer, psilocybin's third-eye-opening properties aren't superficial. Some theories argue that modern human intelligence itself was borne of consumption of the stuff. Magic mushrooms are something about which Stamets is (naturally) an expert, having written the book on the topic, even identifying four new species. It's something he largely credits for his own mycological insights.
"I've never been an apologist for this, but in my younger days I consumed a fair quantity of psilocybin mushrooms," he says. "My experiences using those mushrooms opened up my mind's eye to nature, and frankly I think it's rewired my brain and made me a lot more intelligent than before."
Ultimately it's just such a perspectival shift that may be necessary to steer our fate away from a world in which nature as we've known it is just a memory. This isn't a call to wander into the forest and trip on mushrooms (although I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't). Stamets's proposed solutions are actually quite practical, centering on fostering the health of mycelial networks so that they are better able to equalize out ecosystems and provide us the benefits like those listed above. Encouraging people to garden and grow mushrooms (which spread mycelium), or halting the practice of forest burns and the removal of dead wood, both of which rob essential nutrients for mycelium, are among other examples. Utilizing mycelium in these ways will also require a wider understanding of its nature, which is why Stamets suggests making mycology a mandatory part of primary education, with funding more equivalent to the computer sciences.
"The good news is these things can be put into practice very very quickly," Stamets says. "Mycelium reacts quickly. I'm an impatient person, so mycelium and me are perfect partners."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said an EPA-funded experiment filtered H1N1 out of water; it was E. Coli. Later experiments showed that the extracts are also effective against viruses including H1N1.