Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mycelium Magic: How Mushrooms Can Save the Planet

Mushrooms can be found all around the world and have been used for centuries as a source of food, medicine, and in ritual and religious practices. The real magic, however, happens underground.
Mushrooms are the fruit of microscopic cells called mycelium. These cells recycle carbon, nitrogen and other elements as they break down plant and animal debris to create rich new soil. Mycelium's digestive power can be used in what Paul Stamets refers to as mycorestoration.

Paul Stamets has been a dedicated mycologist for over 40 years and is founder of Fungi Perfecti, dedicated to promoting the cultivation of high quality gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. He has written six books and has received numerous awards. Stamets' book, Mycelium Running is my go-to guide on mycology, and his TED talk 6 ways mushrooms can save the world is definitely worth watching.

In Mycelium Running, Stamets explains the different facets of mycorestoration. Mycoremediation uses mycelium's digestive power to decompose toxic wastes and pollutants. Mycofiltration uses the same digestive power to catch and reduce pathogens from agricultural watersheds. Mycopesticides control insect populations. Mycoforestry and mycogardening enhance the health of forests and gardens. The potential benefit in adopting any of these forms of bio-remediation is obvious. 

Pollution of waterways is rampant. Devastation caused by strip mining, deforestation, oil spills, and factory farming dot the face of the earth like a pox. Nature has provided us with a way to alleviate, and possibly reverse, the damage. Mycelium could be the answer.  But it can also be used as an aid in developing healthier ecosystems, like forests, which are under stress from air pollution and logging.

Organic gardeners can see a benefit by using mycelium to increase the abundance of their crops, and to provide natural pest control. Many mushroom growers help farmers to dispose of manure from livestock. They also buy lower grade hay, which provides additional income for farmers whose land might otherwise have been idle.

As a food source mushrooms are rich in protein, antioxidants, dietary fiber, and complex carbohydrates. They are very low in simple carbohydrates and fat. Mushrooms are good sources of essential minerals - especially selenium, copper, and potassium - elements important for immune function and the production of antioxidants to reduce free radicals. They also contain medicinal compounds, natural antibiotics, enzymes, and enzyme inhibitors that fortify health.

Mushrooms, such as reishi, shiitake, and maitake, have been used for Traditional Chinese Medicine
for thousands of years. There are over 200 species of mushrooms in China that are used to practice healing. One amazing property of mushrooms is a compound called polysaccharides. This enables mushrooms to boost the immune system and fight the growth of tumors. Mushrooms are also high in amino acids, nicotinic acid, riboflavin, vitamins B, C, and K, and pantothenic acid.

Fun fact: a specific honey fungus measuring 2.4 miles (3.8 km) across in the Blue Mountains in Oregon is thought to be the largest living organism on Earth. A clonal colony of the honey mushroom (Armillaria solidipes) covers 2,384 acres (nearly four square miles) of soil and is estimated to be 2,400 years old but could be as ancient as 8,650 years.

I hope we will see greater use of mycorestoration in the future, as I believe it is a viable means of cleaning up the mess we have made. Greater research into the medicinal value of mushrooms needs to continue, as well. 

Until next time...become the change you imagine.

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