Can Mushrooms Save the World?

Last Tuesday, intrigued by a poster entitled “How Mushrooms Can Save the World”, I attended a talk by Paul Stamets—renowned author, conservationist, and noted expert on all things fungi. I must admit that I was skeptical. It seemed such a bold claim—could the humble mushroom really be the answer to so many problems? The poster promised that mushrooms could be used to filter water, regenerate soil, produce antimicrobials, and literally save the planet.

Paul Stamets is a true believer. To him mycology is “under–respected, underappreciated and underfunded” after listening to what he has to say, I am inclined to agree with him. A compelling speaker, he held his audience spellbound as he passionately described how mushrooms can be used to solve an incredible range of problems, from ridding your home of insect pests to potentially saving the world from influenza. Who knew? I am certainly guilty of underappreciating mushrooms. Prior to last week, other than to wonder which variety to choose at the supermarket, I rarely gave mushrooms any thought at all.

Bioremediation
In his lecture, Stamets outlined several amazing examples of the use of oyster mushrooms in bioremediation. He described an experiment where soil heavily contaminated with hydrocarbons was dramatically improved by these fungi. They not only broke down the hydrocarbons and cleaned up the soil faster than any other treatment, but they also acted as a “gateway species”, attracting flies and eventually birds to the site. The birds brought seeds, and plants began to grow. So the oyster mushroom treatment resulted in regeneration of the whole ecosystem.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BelfLIJErek]

In another experiment, sacks filled with fungal mycelium were placed in a river contaminated with E. coli and Staphylococci in an attempt to rid the water of the bacterial contamination. The treatment resulted in a reduction in bacterial numbers to the point where the downstream waters could be opened up for shellfish harvesting for the first time in 5 years. A tremendous result for the local economy and the environment, accomplished with minimal cost.

A Solution for Termite and Carpenter Ant Infestations
One of the most fascinating examples of fungal utility is in the example of using Metarhizium anisopliae mycelium against carpenter ants and termites. The sporulating mycelium is feared and avoided by the ants, to the extent that if an ant approaches the colony with a single spore on them, they are taken away to an ant graveyard and killed. However, the pre-sporulating mycelium has the opposite effect, actually attracting the ants. Stamets described how he was able to rid his own house of carpenter ants using small amounts of rice coated with non-sporulating mycelium. When you consider the toxicity of other fumigation approaches, this simple solution seems a highly attractive alternative to the use of chemical pesticides.

Anti-Viral Activity
Most tantalizingly, Stamets described experiments where crude extracts from the rare Agaricon mushroom showed powerful activity against various viruses, including pox viruses and the virulent H5N1 influenza virus. If this turns out to be a usable compound, it would be a discovery akin in significance to the original discovery of penicillin back in the 40’s—also (incidentally) from fungi.

When I think of the significance of the discovery of penicillin, and the source of that antibiotic, I realize that the notion of fungi saving the world may not be so far-fetched. After all, through penicillin and other antibiotics, they have been quietly saving our lives for over 60 years.

What do you think? Is mycology an underappreciated discipline?

Further information on Stamets Work

NPR Story: Smallpox defence may be found in mushrooms

Ted Talks: Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can change the world

Paul Stamets company web site: Fungi Perfecti

Use of fungi against carpenter ants: Ritter, S.K. (2006) Fungi to the rescue.(pdf) Chemical Engineering News 84(49), 14-15.

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

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