Mushrooms Are Not Only Good For Food

July 2nd, 2011

You might be wondering why I am talking about mushrooms on this environmental website.

Many of us are aware of the usefulness of mushrooms. The toxic toadstools aside, some mushrooms make delicious food dishes (e.g portobella burger), while others are used as medicine (e.g. to deal with cancer). But what many of us are not aware of is how mushrooms are also good for the environment.

Research in recent times, led by American mycologist, Paul Stamets, found that mushrooms can play a big role in environmental clean-ups, through a process known as bioremediation. Bioremediation is the use of the metabolism of microorganisms to remove pollutants, such as oil or other toxic chemicals found in petroleum.

In the movie, the 11th Hour, Paul Stamets said “fungi are the grand molecular disassemblers, the organisms between life and death. They generate soil. The entire food web of nature is based on these fungi filaments. The mycelial network that infuses all land masses in the world is a supportive membrane upon which life proliferates and diversifies. Mushrooms also have a very bizarre property of hyper-accumulating heavy metals.”

And the mushroom is able to perform this amazing function of bioremediation because of its underground part known as the mycelium.

The mycelium comprises a vast branching network of thread-like structures known as the hyphae. As the mycelium grows and spreads out in the soil, it releases enzymes that break down organic matter. Long chains of hydrocarbon polymers in the organic pollutant are reduced to their basic units (e.g. sugars), which are in turn absorbed as nutrients through the mushroom’s hyphal walls. In the process, nutrients released from the organic matter also nourish the soil, and the carbon dioxide gas produced can be used by other plants to photosynthesize.

The highly interconnectedness of the mycelium network allows for the rapid break down of organic matter, followed by the rapid distribution of nutrients throughout the mushroom. This efficiency is considered unique to the mushroom, and unmatched by any other organisms in the world. And it is this efficiency that in turn allows the mushroom to flourish quickly, as well as perform its function at bioremediation within a relatively short time. In fact, studies have found that a mycelium network is capable of restoring soil that is saturated with toxins like oil to its original life-sustaining state in a matter of several months.

Yet interestingly, the different portions of the network is able to function quite independently of each other – when one part of the network is damaged, the rest of the network is still able to function as usual. The affected part just dies off, or gets repaired. This independence makes the mycelium highly resilient in the presence of any physical damage or infection by micro-organisms.

There is no limit to how wide the mushroom mycelium network can grow. According to Scientific American, one of the largest organisms on earth is believed to be a giant mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, found in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. It is estimated that the mushroom occupies 2384 acres of soil (or about 1665 football fields) in the mountain range. It is this large capacity to grow, and detoxify vast areas of land, that makes the mushroom a promising helper in environmental clean-up efforts.

With the proper research and developments, mushrooms can possibly be used to clear up industrial fossil fuel waste that contain substantial amounts of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as well as biodegradable waste found in our garbage.

According to Paul Stamets in the 11th Hour, “forests are thousands of acres so fungi that produce mushrooms grow to thousands of acres in size. This gives us the ability to tap into this powerful inherent resource that mushroom mycelium has to remediate environments, prevent downstream pollution from microbes, from viruses, including bacteria and protozoa and also for breaking down a wide assortment of pollutants. And this is one of the pedestals of mycorestoration. Using mushroom mycelium in order to heal environments because these are truly healing membranes.”

So now you know, mushrooms are not only good for food.

All hail the mighty mushroom!

(But do stay away from the poisonous ones).

This entry was posted on Saturday, July 2nd, 2011 at 3:09 pm and is filed under Developments in Green Technology, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply