By Bryan Lewis
It goes without saying that the biosphere as we know it depends on fungi. For instance, most vascular plants depend on symbiotic relationships with fungi to thrive (Mycorrhiza), and decomposer fungi help produce soil. Through these and other processes, fungi play a central role in life on earth. In a way, fungi already changed the world long ago.
More directly, we’ve learned how to use fungi for our own benefit over the years. That learning process is ongoing, and I’ll highlight a few exciting developments that are happening right now that I believe will fundamentally change our world again.
Of course many of us know and enjoy edible mushrooms, and foraging for mushrooms is an ancient atavistic pleasure. Brewing beer is another pleasurable use of fungi going back to our pre-history. Long ago we learned that some mushrooms have medicinal properties. You may have head of Otzi the ice man, who lived more than 5,000 years ago and was found carrying birch polypore mushrooms carefully threaded along a leather strap. The birch polypore mushroom has antibiotic and styptic properties.
In 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming returned from vacation to his lab full of petri dishes containing staph bacteria to find one dish contaminated.
A mold (fungus) was in that dish, and the mold was secreting a liquid that the staph bacteria could not survive in. By accident, Fleming made one of the most profoundly beneficial discoveries in the 20th century; that the fungi penicillin produced antibiotic compounds, later made into medicines that would save hundreds of millions of people.
Clearly, we have a deep collective experience of learning how to benefit from fungi. But like so many things today, that ancient and primitive knowledge and experience has been synthesized and industrialized. It’s still beneficial on the whole, but sadly removed from our immediate awareness.
Meanwhile many face serious problems of pollution, lack of clean water, and lack of affordable access to medicine. Here in Ohio we’ve seen toxic algal blooms that stem from agricultural runoff threaten clean water supplies in both lake Erie and the Ohio River. Many in the third world suffer from cholera, typhoid, and other terrible diseases for lack of clean water and access to antibiotics. Plastics that take centuries or longer to decompose are polluting oceans on a planetary scale.
A vanguard of mostly young, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial innovators are using fungi to help address these serious problems. I believe that their efforts, or similar ones, will profoundly improve our world by successfully addressing these problems in the near future.
This summer at the West Virginia annual summer foray we saw Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain give an amazing talk on his current research into low-tech production of narrow-spectrum antibiotics that someday could help third world countries like Haiti get a handle on bacterial disease and water contamination. Despite the cheap, low-tech production methods, Tradd’s lab and research methods are decidedly high-tech and directly inspired by Fleming’s original penicillin research. Mushroom Mountain is really a bio-tech startup!
Tradd and others like Ja Schindler of Fungi for the People and Ty Allchin are refining state of the art methods of mycoremdiation: using fungi to restore or generally clean up habitats. For instance, placing beds of robust species like the wine cap mushroom on the downslope margin of farm fields might be an effective mycofiltration system to prevent excess fertilizer runoff from entering our streams, rivers and lakes. This might be a cheap, natural way to prevent toxic algal blooms.
Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre of Ecovative are pioneering ways to make durable packaging material from fungi. And they’re working on training varieties of fungi to consume agricultural waste. They literally make plastic from garbage. Their materials are already replacing polystyrene and other plastics with natural, decomposable materials that come from and return to the soil.
These are just a few highlights of a long list of amazing ideas and recent innovation centered around fungi. It only takes a few of these ideas to succeed to bring about large positive changes to our world, a world shaped in surprisingly many ways by fungi.