While taking a stroll in nature, your yard, or maybe even your local botanic garden (wink, wink!), it isn’t hard to witness nature’s beauty. When we take the time to slow down and really observe nature, the wonderment and complexity of it all is astounding! Nothing must be done, nature accomplishes this all on its own, it is perfect. While we marvel at the landscapes and contemplate how it all comes together effortlessly, it is easy to forget about what is going on beneath the surface, where the magic really takes place!
Did you know that there are over 300 miles of mycelium under your foot? Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. The mycelium infuses all landscapes and holds the soil together; it holds up to 30,000 times its own mass! Mycelium is what creates humus soils and resists erosion by creating a spongy soil. If that isn’t impressive enough, it also creates a mycelial network that acts much like the internet. The mycorrhizal fungi in the soil create a network in the plants root systems, allowing them to communicate. This communication lets them talk to each other, know which offspring are theirs, and even know when to take up nutrients depending on the needs of plants around them. There is a documentary called “Intelligent Trees” that does a fantastic job of explaining and illustrating how this works. The mycelium network also creates a network for the fungi as well. If a mushroom gets a disease, it will send that information across its network and it will make all similar fungi resistant to that disease: awesome!
Based on the work of mycologist Paul Stamets, there were trials conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, operated by Battelle Memorial Institute (known for technological solutions to energy and environmental issues) and the Washington State Department of Transportation to study the mushroom’s petroleum-eating powers. They started with four piles of diesel and other petroleum-soaked waste: a control pile, a pile treated with enzymes, another treated with bacteria and one treated with mushroom mycelium. The results were astounding! In this experiment, the pile with oyster mushroom mycelium produced huge mushrooms and yielded hundreds of pounds! The other piles were still dead, dark, and stinky, while the 4th pile, treated with mushroom mycelium, was flourishing with life! It worked because the mycelium absorbs the oil, breaks it down, and uses it as food. After they fruit (produce mushrooms), they sporulate, which attracts insects. The insects then attract the birds, and the birds bring seeds, creating an oasis of life!
If that isn’t enough to get you excited about the power of mushrooms, Paul Stamets also did a study with the Agarikon Mushroom (Laricifomes officinalis) and it was found to fight against the flu virus, flu B virus, H1N1, H5N1, H3N2 and smallpox; proving to be just as or even more effective in some cases. Paul has also done studies with the Turkey Tail mushroom studying its cancer fighting effects, especially against breast cancer. Paul shares an amazing story about his mother at age 84 being diagnosed with cancer and being too old for chemo/radiation; traditional cancer treatment. Her doctor actually told her about a clinical study taking place with turkey tail mushrooms, and she was pleased to inform her doctor that it was her son providing the mushrooms for the study. Long story short, she participated in the study and eventually was found to be cancer free. She is still alive today, over 10 years later!
Once you become familiar with Paul Stamets and his work, you will find he is always trying to find ways to save the planet with the aid of his fungi friends. He has also done amazing work with honey bees, using mushrooms to save bees from colony collapse. He has even used mushrooms as a natural insecticide. I highly recommend checking him out on YouTube or doing more research with a simple google search. There are numerous documentaries and podcasts that feature Paul, and if you have ever seen a documentary on mushrooms, you probably already know who he is. You will be hard pressed to find anything recent on mycology without Paul being mentioned. I intend to go further in depth with some of these topics in future articles; I especially want to touch on the John Hopkins psilocybin research and the amazing results they have had treating PTSD, depression and those who are dealing with end of life fears/anxiety.
This is just a sneak peek into the fantastic world of fungi. If you have found this interesting, I have two recommendations for documentaries that dive deeper into this subject: Fantastic Fungi and Intelligent Trees. Links are provided below. I hope you found this topic interesting and I hope you will check into Paul Stamets and his works!
Patrick Weaver, Facilities Lead & Horticulturist
Links & Sources (click the link to watch/read more):
Mushroom & Mycelium Documentaries: Fantastic Fungi and Intelligent Trees
Paul Stamets Book: Mycelium Running – How mushrooms can help save the world
Paul Stamets TedTalks:
At TEDMED 2011 Turkey Tail Mushrooms, Cancer and how it saved his Mother. (Starts at 7:54)
6 ways mushrooms can save the world
Can mushrooms save the earth?