Mushrooms Can Eat Plastic, Petroleum and CO2

January 11, 2018 at 3:16 am

Mushrooms have a solution for just about every man-made problem

In the midst of global warming, global desertification, deoxygenating oceans and Earth’s sixth mass extinction crisis, mycologist and author Paul Stamets gives us seven reasons to hold out hope, and they all involve mushrooms.

In a still-relevant 2008 Ted Talk, he says mushrooms contain the solution to just about every major problem humans have created, from global warming, to oil spills, to plastic pollution.

The story of mushrooms

Fungi were the first organisms to come to land 1.3 billion years ago, clearing the way for plants to grow, by breaking rocks down into soil.

Stamets, author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, believes the planet was covered in giant mushrooms about half a billion years ago, and have survived all of Earth’s mass extinction events including the fifth, when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The impact filled the atmosphere with debris and blocked sunlight.

Because fungi don’t need light, they “inherited the earth,” Stamet says. “The organisms that partnered with the fungi were rewarded.”

Mushrooms facilitate communication and the multi-directional transfer of nutrients between plants, Stamet said.

“Mycelium is the Mother, giving nutrients from Alder and Birch trees to Hemlock, cedar and Douglas Firs,” he added.

Mycelium is Earth’s natural internet, Stamet says. If one branch is broken, there are alternative pathways for channeling nutrients and information.

“The mycelium is sentient,” he says in seriousness. “It knows that you are there.”

But don’t let that scare you… mycophobia, Stamets says is just the irrational fear of the unknown fungi. When you get to know them better, you’ll find mushrooms are man’s best friend. Here are 7 reasons why:

1. They are among the strongest antibiotics and antivirals on Earth

We’re more related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom, Stamets says. In fact some have classified animals and fungi in the same kingdom.

That means we share in common a lot of the same pathogens.

“Fungi don’t like to rot from bacteria, so our best antibiotics come from fungi,” Stamets says.

And some of our best antivirals come from extremely rare, giant Agarikon mushrooms.

In his work for the US Defense Department’s bioshield program, Stamets found Agarikon mushrooms to be extremely effective tools in the fight against pox viruses, such as smallpox, and flu viruses, like H1N1.

Agarikon mushrooms only grow in old growth forests, mainly along the west coast of North America. They are thought to be extinct in Europe.

 “We should save the old growth forests as a matter of national defense,” Stamets says.

2. They build soil, protect against erosion and support reforestation

“Mycelium are the grand molecular disassemblers of nature, the soil magicians, responsible for generating the humus or “organic matter” layer of soil,” Stamets says.

They also form fine, mesh-like nets or webs that hold the soil together creating little micro-pockets for water to pool up between their strands, creating moist, spongy soil that resists erosion.

There can be more than 8 miles of mycelium in a square inch of soil, capable of holding up to 30,000 times their mass.

This creates a microbial universe that gives rise to a plurality of other organisms.

Stamets has developed the concept of the Life Box, innoculating cardboard packaging with Agerikon mushrooms. Just throw them in some soil with some tree seeds, water them and you’ll have an old growth forest in the making, he says.

3. Fungi sequesters carbon dioxide

Fungi absorb tons of carbon dioxide in their hairlike mycelium. In fact, a recent study finds the mycelium on plants’ roots store more carbon than plant matter itself. Up to 70 percent of all soil carbon is stored in the mycelium.

4. They clean up oil spills

Stamets joined with Patel Laboratories to test the power of mushrooms to clean up diesel and other petroleum waste.

One spill was treated with enzymes, one with bacteria and one with mycelium.

After a few weeks, the other piles were dead, dark and stinky. The mycelium pile was covered with hundreds of pounds oyster mushrooms.

The mushrooms’ enzymes re-manufactured the hydrocarbons into carbohydrates, fungal sugars, Stamets said.

“The mushrooms sporulated, the spores attracted insects, the insects laid eggs, which became larvae, which attracted birds and seeds, transforming their waste pile into an oasis of life,” he said.

5. Non-toxic insecticide

Stamet’s has developed two patented insecticides — one for carpenter ants, fire ants and termites and another for 200,000 other types of insects — using special mushrooms he developed.

Normally mushroom spores repel insects, but Stamets’ mushrooms attract the insects to eat them before they sporulate, and then sporulate and sprout right through the insects’ bodies and kill them.

“This is the most disruptive technology — I’ve been told by executives of the pesticide industry — that they have ever witnessed,” he said. “It could totally revamp the pesticide industry.”

6. They can make an efficent, green version of ethanol called “eco”nol

Watching mushrooms convert corn cellulose to fungal sugar, Stamets saw a potential solution to the energy crisis – “eco”nol.

“Converting cellulose to ethanol is ecologically unintelligent,” he said, as the process uses more energy than it creates.

But by letting mushrooms do the work of breaking down the corn for us, we could have a very cheap source of clean fuel, he says.

7. Mushrooms eat plastic

Since Stamet’s talk, scientists have discovered one of the most amazing superpowers of mushrooms. They can eat plastic!

As the planet piles up with plastic, which might take thousands of years to decompose, it’s reassuring to know that researchers from Yale have found several types of mushrooms that can make use of the substance as a food source.

“This is a species we need to join with if we’re going to save the world,” Stamets concludes.