In a 2008 Ted Talk, mycologist Paul Stamets declared that mushrooms may be the solution to a number of environmental issues facing our planet today. It turns out, mushrooms can eat plastic, clean up oil spills, and re-build our forests, among many other incredible abilities.
How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World
Mushrooms are some of the most incredible organisms on our planet, and we are still learning how we benefit from them. We already know that eating them can cut your risk for cognitive decline, and some types of mushrooms may even help treat depression.
In his book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Stamets explains how mushrooms have survived every mass extinction throughout our planet’s history. This includes the most recent mass extinction. While not all scientists agree that an asteroid was the cause of the fifth mass extinction, one thing is certain: The earth was covered in dust, sunlight could not get through, and the majority of plants and animals died.
That is, except for the mushrooms. Because mycelium does not require sunlight to grow, mushrooms proliferated. Any organisms, then, that paired with mushrooms had a better chance at survival .
These mushrooms created the soil and environmental conditions upon which other plants and organisms could re-establish themselves. In his talk, Stamets explains how mushrooms facilitate communication and the multi-directional transfer of nutrients between plants.
He describes mushrooms as “earth’s natural internet”.
“If one branch is broken, there are alternative pathways for channeling nutrients and information,” he explains. “The mycelium is sentient, it knows you are there” .
“Mushrooms Can Eat Plastic” and Has Other Amazing Abilities
Mushrooms’ ability to survive mass extinctions and then rebuild over and over again is the basis for its usefulness. It is this quality that makes them the solution to problems like global warming, global desertification, deoxygenating oceans, and our sixth mass extinction crisis.
Mushrooms Can Eat Plastic
One of the reasons mushrooms have survived so well over billions of years is their ability to “eat” matter than other organisms can’t. This includes things like rocks, and as scientists know now, plastic.
Researchers from Yale screened several types of endophytic fungi and found that several of them can degrade polyester polyurethane, aka, plastic . Endophytic organisms are organisms that live within another plant for at least part of their life cycle .
This process is an example of bioremediation, which relies on biological processes to break down a variety of pollutants. The researchers describe this as an important approach to waste reduction.
Plastic pollution has become a significant threat to our environment, and this research shows that mushrooms may play an important role in the solution to that problem.
Mushrooms are an Important Antibacterial/Antiviral
“Fungi don’t like to rot from bacteria, so our best antibiotics come from fungi,” Stamets explains in his Ted Talk .
One 2005 review found that mushrooms are potentially an excellent source of bioactive metabolites, and thus could be an important resource for drugs. We can also easily produce mushrooms year-round of standardized quality, which is an important prerequisite for any drug or nutraceutical .
Another more recent review from 2018 also concluded that mushrooms are a vast source of bioactive molecules. This makes them useful as antivirals. Since viral infections are among the most common diseases affecting people worldwide, this could have a profound impact on modern medicine .
Mushrooms Support Reforestation
Stamets refers to mushrooms as the “soil magicians”. This is because they have a remarkable ability to build soil and protect against erosion, which helps plants and trees thrive.
Mushrooms create a thread-like network below them called hyphae. When these fungal hyphae work together with plant roots, this is called mycorrhizae. Just one thimbleful of soil can contain miles of mycorrhizal filaments.
This network provides a number of benefits to soil and plants. It produces organic compounds that glue soils together. This improves its structure and porosity, which enhances root growth. It can also protect against soil-borne pathogens and help prevent root diseases.
Susie Dunham is a mycologist and pesticide specialist with the National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University. She says that this adds up to a mutualistic relationship between fungi and green plants that has been evolving for millions of years.
“Most plants – from orchids, rhododendrons, and madrone trees to most fruit and nut trees, turf grasses, annuals, and perennials – depend on some type of fungal activity,” she explains .
Mushrooms Sequester Carbon Dioxide
This thread-like network also absorbs massive amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.
In fact, a 2013 study found that in northern boreal forests, it is not the plant matter that is responsible for the majority of carbon sequestering. Instead, it is the fungi that live on and in tree roots that do most of the work.
The researchers found that the trees, which pull in carbon dioxide, were carrying much of that carbon in their roots via sugars. There, mycorrhizal fungi were eating it and expelling it into the soil .
This has important implications for climate change since one of the main contributors to the warming of our planet is carbon dioxide. The more CO2 we can remove from our atmosphere, the more we can slow down global warming.
Mushrooms Clean Up Oil Spills
Mushrooms can eat plastic, but they can also eat oil.
In his talk, Stamets describes how he worked with Patel Laboratories to use mycelium to clean up diesel and other petroleum waste. They treated one pile with enzymes, one with bacteria, and one with mycelium.
The mycelium produces enzymes called peroxidases that break carbon-hydrogen bonds. This allows the mycelium to become saturated with oil and grow mushrooms. After six weeks, the other two piles were “dead, dark, and stinky”. The third pile was covered in oyster mushrooms.
Additionally, the growing mushrooms attracted insects, which in turn attracted birds. Eventually, other plant life began to grow on the pile.
“These are gateway species that open the door for other biological communities,” Stamets said .
Mushrooms Can Act as a Non-Toxic Insecticide
Stamets has also harnessed the power of mushrooms as an all-natural insecticide and has now patented two insecticides. One works for carpenter ants, fire ants, and termites, and the other works for more than two hundred thousand other insects.
He did this by creating a non-sporulating mushroom. Normally, the spores on mushrooms deter insects. Stamets’ mushroom, however, attracts the bugs before sporulating. The bug eats the mushroom, it mummifies the insect and then sporulates. The spore sprouts right through the insect’s body, which kills it.
Stamets says that this could totally revamp the pesticide industry throughout the world .
Can Mushrooms Save the Planet?
Stamets is not the only singing the praises of the mighty mushroom. Scientists around the world are looking to the remarkable organism to solve some of our biggest environmental issues.
Mushrooms can eat plastic, yes, but that is only the beginning. Their ability to rebuild environments and create brand new ecosystems could have a profound impact on the health of our planet.