“Brace for impact,” advised a gray-bearded man wearing wire-rimmed glasses. Shaggy, dark brown curls tumbled out from beneath his tawny, felted hat, and the hundreds of mycologists in the audience could feel his excitement. “And can someone turn out the lights?” he continued as the slide on the screen revealed the phrase “Biodiversity is Biosecurity” against a luminous blue background.
Paul Stamets is a visionary, award-winning mycologist (person who studies mushrooms), author of “Mycelium Running – How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” and founder of Fungi Perfecti, a company that grows and sells mushroom products for “Home and Garden, Field and Forest, People and Planet.” He believes that mushrooms, and the network of root-like fungal mycelium that produces them, can heal the planet (including humans.)
Images of networks flashed on the screen as Paul reflected on the similarities between systems of brain neurons, galaxies, dark matter, the internet, and fungal hyphae. What do they all have in common? Redundancy in their information pathways. If one route is broken, several alternatives can carry the data. “I calculated that every footstep I take impacts more than 300 miles of mycelium,” he shared. All that mycelium in a small place means many opportunities for connection and re-connection. Humans would do well to imitate the resiliency of those networks, Paul suggests.
Fungi, Paul argues, are both the internet and the immune system of the Earth. Mycorrhizal fungi, who form partnerships with the roots of most plants, extend their root-like hyphae throughout the forest floor. As I described with black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms a few weeks ago, the fungus grows a layer of hyphae around the tree’s tiny roots, and even in between the cells of the roots. Then, the fungi stretches it network of hyphae out into the soil, and aids the tree in acquiring water and nutrients, especially nitrogen. Mushrooms, as they decompose, also cycle quite a bit of phosphorus in a forest ecosystem.
The mycelia not only benefit their main tree partner by extending the food- and water-gathering power of the roots, they also break down dead stuff – and even break down rocks – to make nutrients available to the tree. Chemical compounds that the fungi exude can ward off harmful fungi and bacteria, and help the forest maintain a suite of microorganisms essential for health and growth.
When a plant is attacked by pests, it often begins producing chemical defenses that make it less palatable to the insect. Other plants connected through the fungal “internet” get the message and can preempt an insect attack. In controlled experiments, plants not connected by fungal hyphae don’t have the same ability to communicate danger to each other.
In exchange for these services, the tree “pays” the fungi in photosynthates – the sugars that only green plants can produce through photosynthesis. Amazingly, the fungal network can also facilitate the sharing of sugars between trees of completely different species. When scientists shaded a Douglas fir tree, the fungi brought it sugars from a nearby birch. This is just one way that mushrooms can support the health of a forest.
The mycorrhizal fungi that partner with plant roots occupy a pretty unique niche in the forest. They often grow with just one or two types of trees. Many are choice edible and medicinal mushrooms (like my hedgehogs and black trumpets), but they are almost impossible to cultivate because of their specificity.
Saprophytic mushrooms, on the other hand, decompose organic material, and are absolutely critical to renewal in the forest. They turn dead stuff into healthy soil with plenty of nutrients for new life. Some saprobes can even decompose things like petroleum and fecal bacteria. They can act as living filters for pollution. And many edible species can be grown fairly easily in your basement or backyard.
Most of the audience already knows this. As members of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) attending the Annual Foray, they’ve been seeking choice edibles and comparing notes on cultivating mushrooms all weekend, in addition to collectively picking and identifying over 364 species from the surrounding area.
Paul’s talk was not new to them, since he is a regular at their gatherings. I, in contrast, had only heard vaguely of his ideas, and had let his book drift to bottom of my reading list. His excitement for the subject sparked mine. Happily, I get to think about mushrooms and mycologists for the next few years, since I’m helping to organize the 2017 NAMA Annual Foray in Cable, WI! By then, we’ll know even more about how mushrooms can help save the world. Hope to see you there!
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.