Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fungi can help to save the World!

Fungi really are my obsession at the moment. I recently watched a Ted Talk by Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world! Even though we know very little about fungi, there is also a lot we do know.

Paul talks about the properties of different fungi, particularly Mycelium, and how they are the veins in our planet.
Is this the largest organism in the world? This 2,400-acre (9.7 km2) site in eastern Oregon had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees. Mushroom-forming forest fungi are unique in that their mycelial mats can achieve such massive proportions.
—Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running

Fungi can form huge underground highways; we only see them is when a mushroom or toadstool pops up. Fungi are great organic recyclers, decomposers and filters. They can break down anything into simple sugars, which are then used by other organisms or help to bind soil. Fungi are essential in nutrient and water cycling, and are important for plants, animals and our environment. So, we know that they are important for ecosystems, what else can they do?

The 6-ways Paul says that fungi can save the world, include:
* Cleaning up petrochemical spills: Fungi break down complex chemicals into simple sugars. This means that fungi can be used to clean up oil spills on soil, and can possibly even help with the clean up of the BP spill! Even better, that fungi rehabilitated a site so well,it helped to start and entire new ecosystem.
* Ecotonol: The simple sugars that fungi make could be a source of ethanol. Fungi could break down waste materials, and the sugars it produces then harvested and used in fuels.
* Medicines: Fungi are known to have strong antibiotics, such as penicillin. There is a lot of potential to discover more medicines in different fungi species. For example, the Agericon fungi reduced prevalence of small pox and may do the same for strains of influenza.
* Life Boxes: Cardboard packaging boxes are made with fungi and seeds in the paper walls. After the box is used, it can be opened up, watered and a food garden will grow!
* Reduces bacteria, such as E. coli, in recycled water used on gardens. 
* Kills pests: Paul found that modifying spores of fungi can stop termite invasions! He even tried this in his own home.

Before I watched Paul's talk, I tried to guess some of his ideas. Some of my thoughts were the same, but some were also different:
* Land rehabilitation: Same as what Paul discovered, fungi can be and are used in land rehabilitation. Fungi are often innoculised into seeds or soil to help with growth and development of an ecosystem. I was considering looking at fungi as part of my research on mine rehabilitation. As my fungi-loving supervisor pointed out, there is so little we know about fungi, it would take 4-5 PhD's before we even knew what species were endemic to the area, let alone their role in plant and ecosystem development! However, many rehabilitated mines in Africa have shown that fungi are the first organisms to grown on sites high in heavy metals. Perhaps they can be used to clean up heavy metals and start the process of mine rehabilitation? They could also be used to help start nutrient cycling and plant development.

* As a food source: Many vegetarians know that mushrooms are a high source of iron and protein in their diets. In fact, many vegetarian foods are made with mushroom protein: fake chicken nuggets, Quorn brand, Asian fake-meats etc. The best thing about fungi production is that they can use wastes to grow! This means we don't need to supply them with fertiliser or chemicals or lots of space. They are incredibly energy efficient, and just need nice moist and dark conditions. They have the potential to provide a critical source of iron and protein to developing nations, whilst recycling wastes and limiting use of inputs.
Mushroomy Mince! Yum!

* Help in food production: Particular strains of fungi are often inoculated in seeds to help growth of plants, such as lucerne or other crops. The fungi has  symbiotic relationship with the plant. The plant provides it a home, while the fungi helps to transform nutrients into plant-available forms, and thus helps it grow. Mycorrhiza are well known to help with phosphorous and nitrogen transformation for plants. What other fungi species can help with plant growth? Do they have potential to be used in other food crops? Can we increase production or reduce diseases using fungi? Can we use inoculated seeds world-wide? Could fungi reduce famine? So many questions!

Fungi have so much potential, and there are still so many questions. By better understanding fungi, we can harness their natural nutrient cycling and cleaning abilities to produce food, fuel, medicines, and healthy environments. Who knows what else they can do! What are some ways you think fungi can help save the world?

Want to know more about Fungi and how they can save the world? Check out Paul's talk via TED Talks (below), Paul's company (Fungi Perfecti) or his research on Mycelium and how it can save the world.


  1. Go fungi! They would have to be just about the most underappreciated thing going around. We also need yeast to brew our beer, which is very important for social cohesion. Or something like that...

  2. You have a good point, L! A world without beer would be a sad one indeed :D