A family of health superheroes, whose powers range from fighting cancer to cleaning up the pollution: meet the humble fungi.
When you think of fungi you might visualize mushrooms – the ones that make it to your plate, or even the mushrooms that pop up along the forest floor. However, in reality, mushrooms merely make up the ‘flower’ portion of some species of fungi. The real magic takes place below the surface, where the ‘root system’ of the mushroom, the mycelium, is present. In recent decades, scientists have begun to realise that the mycelium plays an increasingly more important role in ecosystems than ever considered before, unlocking solutions for cleaning up the environment, developing greener construction and product materials, and providing significant medicinal benefits.
Here are some of the many ways that fungi can help save our environment.
Photo Credits: Sandro Rizzolo
1. Fungi and Climate Change
Fungi are extremely invasive! Believe it or not, they can transfer nutrients from one plant to another to help them flourish. Mycelia act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants, sharing nutrients and information. That, and the fact that they are completely indiscriminate in their consumption of organic material, is what controls forest diversity and helps maintain a sustainable ecosystem for the animals and plants that share the same habitat. Mycorrhizal fungi also help forests absorb carbon dioxide, enhancing their ability to keep carbon locked up in trees and soils and out of the atmosphere, thus delaying the effects of global warming
Fungi can likely clean up other aspects of the environment too. For example, the mushroom Aspergillus Tubingensis could provide a solution to the growing plastic waste crisis. It has the ability to grow on the surface of plastic where it secretes enzymes that can actually deteriorate the material. What could take decades, even centuries to degrade can now degrade in a matter of weeks!
Photo Credits: DesignPics/Dissolve
2. Fungi Based Products
Product manufacturers are also looking toward fungi in material development due to properties that allow them to naturally decompose at the end of their life cycle. Fungi are being used as a substitute for environmental nemesis polystyrene foam, animal leather, and chemical-laden building materials.
One company, Coeio, has even created a mushroom-infused burial suit, explaining that a human body will break down faster and give back to the Earth sooner while the fungal properties filter out any toxic chemicals the body has acquired while living.
Harmless fungi can also be used to control bacteria and insect pests on crops reducing the need for pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
3. Health Benefits of Fungi
Mushrooms contain protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which have various health benefits. The antioxidant content in mushrooms may help prevent lung, prostate, breast, and other types of cancer.
Fungi are also in the spotlight for exciting medical advancements, such as treating anxiety and depression with psilocybin. For those wondering, psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms or “magic mushrooms”.
Photo Credits: NDTV Food
4. Fungus and Biofuel
Fungi probably have received the least attention in the biofuel market. However, research has demonstrated that several types of fungi may actually make it easier and more efficient to produce biofuels from plant feedstock.
The standard process of making biofuels involves using yeast (a type of fungus) and proceeds in two steps. First, enzymes are used to degrade plant material into sugar. Then, yeast converts the sugar to ethanol which works as a biofuel additive.
The environmental benefits of using ethanol biofuel are incredible, so much so that adding ethanol to gasoline even in low percentages, such as 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline, reduces carbon monoxide emissions from the gasoline and improves fuel octane.
Photo Credits: naturespackaging.org
Fungi are already part of our everyday life in ways you may not even recognize. In addition to the mushrooms on your pizza, fungi are important for fermentation, which creates alcohol, leavened bread, and much more.
The list of possible ways fungi are saving our planet is nearly as long as the list of species themselves. With an increasing interest in research, the possibilities for finding innovative ways to use fungi in the future look exciting and promising.