Everyone knows about mushrooms. They are strange looking organisms that grow on dead things. Some taste good. Some kill us. Some make us have wild experiences. This is the extent of the average person’s knowledge of fungi. But what else do mushrooms do? The fungal kingdom is surprisingly large compared to our understanding of them. Fungal species outrank plant species six to one, yet our comprehension of them does not come close to encapsulating the benefits fungi can have.
The mushrooms we see are actually just the reproductive part of an overall fungal organism. The real magic happens underground. Mycelium is the underground web-like structure of the mushroom that gathers data on the environment it is living in. It then reacts to the environment to create a good platform for the fungus to grow. But why does this matter? It seems as though fungi is just trying to grow efficiently in order to survive, a trait that every living organism has. This is true, but in the process of fungi giving itself the best platform to grow, it also creates a platform for all living organisms in its ecosystem to thrive.
Fungi acts as nature’s recycling system. It takes dead organic material and waste and transforms it into nutrient-rich soil that in turn gives plants fertile soil to grow in. Healthy plant growth then provides animals a food source, which sustains life, until the plants animals die and the fungi can decompose them, restarting the cycle. Fungi is at the base of this ecological equation, bridging the gap between death and new life.
How can this be helpful to us? New research from mycologists (biologists with a focus on fungi) have found remarkable uses of different species of mushrooms. Starting with our environment, some kinds of fungi called Cordyceps can be used as a pesticide (if you ever saw the vine of an ant throwing another ant off of an edge, this fungus is most likely the reason. Seriously look up Cordyceps by BBC Studio up on YouTube. It is absolutely wild). This can be used in the agricultural industry as a natural way to preserve crop yield. Farmers won’t have to wear hazmat suits to spray the food we eat with pesticides if this becomes common practice. The mycelium in fungi also help break down the soil beneath as it grows. It can break rocks down and other larger materials and transform them into fertile nutrients for plants. Certain species of mushrooms can also help save the bees. Bees are sometimes victims of a parasite that can harm their larvae. Deformed wing virus is very detrimental to bees. Fungi can help the bees with these diseases and parasites, which will have momentous benefits on our overall ecosystem.
It’s clear that fungi can help our environment, but that is only one piece of the pie. Mushrooms also have various benefits directed for humans, and here is where things get interesting.
Humans are closer relatives to fungi than to plants. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that mushrooms will have mental and physical benefits to us. For example, “lion’s mane” mushroom has been shown to regrow the myelin sheaths, which are basically the insulation to our fragile and sensitive messengers: nerves. The implications of this could be massive. Think of neurodegenerative diseases like alzheimer’s and dementia. Nerve endings slowly yet progressively die and the results can be tragic. Further research and applications of “lion’s mane” could possibly help prevent these diseases.
Many mushrooms act as a immune booster, including “turkey tail” and Piptoporus betulinus. These two species of mushrooms are easily found in Durham college woods. Piptoporus betulinus grows mostly on dying birch trees, which New Hampshire has plenty of. It can be used as a immune booster, anti-inflammatory drug (with no side effects), and even a way to transfer a fire source long distances (which was very helpful for early humans).
I found these on my first time on a mushroom hunt with almost no knowledge of what I was doing, and it only took about 30 minutes to find them. I barely stepped foot into college woods and still I found medicinally and anthropologically significant species of mushrooms. Imagine what could be found with more time and experience.
We can and should use mushrooms more often to help ourselves and our environment. Think back to the role mushrooms play in our ecosystem; they grow in the most beneficial way for themselves and their environments. Why don’t we, as humans, learn from our evolutionary ancestors and strive to live and act in ways that not only benefits ourselves but also creates an environment for all others to strive in? Now this may sound like a daunting task, but you’d be surprised at what a little effort can do.