Image source: Fulkeun

By Advika Gudi, Staff Writer

The next time you’re walking around nature, take a look at the ground. Admittedly, I’ve never cared enough to pay attention to it either. Why look down at grime and soil when you can look at beautiful flowers and blue skies? Well, what if I told you that there is a hidden world of fungi, yes fungi, spanning miles, bursting with complexity and beauty laying right underneath your feet? Merlin Sheldrake, Cambridge-educated mycologist and author (to give authority), describes “a ‘feeling of vertigo’ that he felt when he first realized that there was a universe below just as exciting and boundless as the one above. 

If this hasn’t convinced you, let me introduce you to a fascinating study proving that fungi and mycelium are *smarter* than us! Scientists took mycelium and placed it in a petri dish with oat flakes arranged to represent Japanese cities around Tokyo. Over time, the mycelium grew tunnels to find food and as the scientists describe it “What was left after a day was a sprawling web that looked practically identical to the Tokyo subway system. A feat that has taken us centuries to perfect, took mold a couple of hours.

If fungi are so fascinating, why are they a hot topic now, 20 years after the research has already been conducted? Well, a large part of it can be attributed to prejudice within science itself. Sheldrake says that ‘Mycologists were put in a corner of the plant sciences department, rather than in their own fungal sciences department. This had a huge impact. Neglect within the field leads to a lack of funding, research and training – an overall lack of knowledge. Most people outside of science have an instantaneous, revolted reaction when fungi are mentioned, or they only think of them as mushrooms. However, there is so much more to fungi than just packaged white, button mushrooms. In fact, some research has shown us that this ignored kingdom has the potential to change the future and soften the blow of climate change. 

In a study conducted by Paul Stamets, four different piles of diesel and petroleum waste were each treated with bacteria, a virus, mycelium fungi and one left as control. After six weeks, all except the fungi pile were dead and putrid. The mycelium pile had given birth to life. It had regenerated the soil and the pile was covered with oyster mushrooms. Not only can the fungi break down hydrocarbons, they can also revitalize soil that has been polluted by pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Mycelium weaves itself into the roots of plants, which act as a host for the growing fungal networks.  In return for plants keeping it alive, mycelium breaks down organic matter and helps the soil retain moisture, providing plants with a direct channel to water and nutrient-rich soil. Not only do mushrooms help keep our rapidly disappearing forests alive, but they also play a larger role in climate change by sequestering carbon.

Amazingly, fungi can also be used to create antibiotics and antivirals. In another study conducted by Stamets in collaboration with the BioShield Program of the U.S. The Defence Department, it was found that mycelium consumed the metabolites released from boiling a variety of mushrooms and developed anti-poxvirus properties. 

Fungi can also be used to make biodegradable plastic and a company called Evocative has been producing mycelium-based packaging since 2007. Not only is their product fully compostable, but it is also water-resistant and insulated. Alternative methods to plastic packaging have become so famous that IKEA has started using mushroom packaging for most of its goods. 

Finally, the most peculiar use of mushroom is perhaps in the making of burial suits. Jhae Rim 

identified the problem of conventional American burials as being the release of many toxins into the soil. The CDC estimates 219 of them reside in our bodies, including pesticides, lead and mercury which seep into the soil until finally make their way into the food we eat and the water we drink. To rectify this, Lee created ‘death suits’ that are covered with spores that slowly decompose the body and leave the soil rich in nutrients. She believes it’s our “environmental responsibility” to understand how we connect to the planet and that this understanding is crucial to our survival as a species in the future. 

In the end, it’s important to remember that we are just one part of the tree of life and the solution to one of the biggest questions our species currently face, could just be found in a little fungal spore. 

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