In 2008, famed mycologist Paul Stamets gave a Ted Talk titled “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” The speech came three years after the first publication of his seminal work Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. In both works, Stamets laid out his biggest discoveries from a lifelong pursuit of mycology. Below, we’ve laid out a few examples of how our fungal friends can help humanity chart a sustainable, regenerative way forward with a little help from Stamets’ insights.
You’ve probably heard of the power of medicinal mushrooms like Reishi (e.g. Ganoderma lucidum) and Turkey Tail (trametes versicolor). But there are innumerable other mushrooms, much less known, that can help combat not just inflammation or cancer, but biological threats like smallpox disease.
Why? Genetically speaking, humans are more similar to fungi than any other life form. And to grow successfully, fungi must fight off millions of competitor bacteria, viruses, and other fungi. Put more simply, we share similar enemies.
Soil Builders, Air Purifiers
In an old growth forest, up to eight miles of mycelium can be found within one square inch of soil capable of holding up to 30,000 times the mycelium’s mass within its weblike, filamentous structure.
Mycelium holds soil together. It prevents erosion. It retains moisture. And it creates an ideal environment for rich biological life. In no small way, then, mycelium is responsible for the organic matter, humus, that makes soil alive, abundant, and able to produce the food we all depend on for survival.
Fungi also help purify the air we breathe by absorbing massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Some studies suggest that most of the carbon sequestering by forests is due not to the plants’ direct actions, but to the mycelium on the plant roots and within the forest soil.
Oil: It’s What’s for Dinner
One of fungi’s superpowers is its ability, when confronted with a novel substance, to tap into its vast genetic code and find a new enzymatic “key” to break it down. This is demonstrated perhaps no more illustratively than in an experiment Stamets conducted years ago- demonstrating the ability of oyster mushrooms (pleurotus spp.) to break down diesel oil — i.e. complex hydrocarbons — into simpler carbohydrates that the mushrooms then used as food.
In a span of eight weeks, an oil soaked pile of debris was transformed into more than one hundred pounds of oyster mushrooms and the aromatic hydrocarbon concentrations near the pile was reduced from 10,000 parts per million to 200 parts per million. Certain mushroom species have also demonstrated an ability to break down and consume plastic.
The applications for fungi in helping to remediate environmental ills (e.g. mycofiltration of water) and create a more sustainable future (e.g. mycelium based packaging supplies, mycelium based leather products) are endless and only now beginning to be truly be respected, researched, and explored.
As Stamets concluded at the end of his now famous speech, “These are a species [sic] that we need to join with. Engaging with mycelium can help save the world.”
- Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets
- 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, Paul Stamets, via YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5frPV58tY