With the increased amount of rain in recent weeks, combined with the elevated temperatures, I have noticed a lot of mushrooms sprouting out from the ground. Some amongst the grass, around the ancient termite mounds, or from a pile of elephant dung. Warm humid climates are the perfect places for fungi to grow, but with so many around, I couldn’t help but think about them a little more than usual. What are mushrooms? How do they exist? What is their purpose? How many of these are edible to humans or to animals? Why would animals feed on fungi?
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of mycelium. often growing above the ground they are like other fruit from plants, used to reproduce and release millions of spores that will be transported by a number of means such as the wind or animals that consume them. When the spores land on a suitable substrate they will germinate to form a dense network of microscopic rooting threads that grow out in search of other food sources. Unlike the mushroom above the ground which is short-lived, the mycelium persists, often for many years, extracting nutrients and sending them along the network underground towards their annual crop of mushrooms or other plants.
The Mycelium helps plants communicate with each other, share information, and spread nutrients. It also holds together a large mass of soil interconnected by these mycelia. There are studies proving that the mycelium reacts to our presence. Each step that you take in the soft soil, the mycelia rises up underfoot to reach for debris to group the soil together again. The networks that I am talking about are the white threads that you see underneath the plant’s roots, seen when you uproot plants.
It is believed that eating certain mushrooms can help heal and improve your immune system. Could this be why animals eat them? Or is it just out of curiosity? I have heard that some predators such as lions have been seen eating mushrooms too. Could it help their senses during hunts? A question I constantly ponder upon is, how much of what animals eat is due to choice rather than necessity or opportunity? The selection of food in the natural world is generally based on what is available at the time rather than a preference. Sadly for us, proving just how much foresight animals have into the after-effects of what they are eating (like mushrooms boosting immunity) is very difficult.
Although I ponder these thoughts a lot, the point of this blog is not to discuss whether or not lions eat mushrooms. Rather how human uses for mushrooms are far more diverse than many realise. Research into fungi has contributed to the fields of medicine, textiles, fibre, and biofuel. Fungi can be used as an antibiotic myco-medicine, for example, if you have an infection and you are not sure what the bacteria is; or you know it is E. coli, which is drug-resistant, you can take that bacteria and inject it into (inoculate) a mushroom. The mushroom will then sweat out metabolites which will be able to kill those bacteria, and essentially be used by humans for medicine.
Mushrooms are fascinating organisms that have got many different uses, over and above a few being edible.
Here are a couple of the unknown uses of mushrooms:
Building material – Mycelium is a natural fungi material with industrial-level strength. Throughout recent years, researchers have extensively explored the prospects of this as a potential building material. One that we are able to generate in a sustainable manner. This emerging material could be used as the building blocks (literally) for future homes.
Not only would these bricks be more sustainable, but they would also be lighter and more portable with the potential to be more durable and provide better insulation. Manufacture is not yet widespread but, watch this space, as I am sure it has the potential to become a lot more prevalent.
Water filter – fungi filter all sorts of pathogens and chemicals out of water. Mushrooms are being tested for their ability to filter water as well as to feed on major pollutants.
But wait, there is more…Paul Stamets (mycologist) speaks about a hypothesis (not proven with facts but speculated) that mushrooms helped facilitate the evolution of humans. The hypothesis believes that mushrooms form new neurons and allow Homo sapiens to access different pathways in our brains. This increases our ability to broaden our senses and consciousness. Mushrooms were present around us, for example, the mushrooms forming up out of hippo and elephant dung known as Psilocybe cubensis, would have been gathered by foragers. These are supposedly responsible for creating new neurons and are said to help eliminate fear, create consciousness and instil empathy.
Most people don’t know that we as part of the Kingdom Animalia are more closely related to the Kingdom Fungi than any other kingdom, although the split from fungi was many many years ago. Humans have a complex form of communication similar to the mushroom mycelium. Mycelium is the network of fungi underneath your feet, it connects the roots of a variety of plants spread out several metres apart.
It forms a communication network, a natural form of the internet, but for plants below the ground. Basically, mycelium is the mother feeding the plants, sending nutrients along its strands in all directions that it has harvested from the decaying organisms around them. Returning all nutrients back to the ground and ensuring that all plants around them thrive. Mushrooms may be a healthier, more sustainable future for us and nature. Whether you believe it or not I’m going to be eating a lot more mushrooms!