Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mushroom Muscle - Mycelium The Most Important Organism Known to Mankind ?

Mushrooms - they are yummy in our tummy, a darling of the gourmet food crowd, a nutritionists delight and  the subject of fascination and  folk history for millennia. The legendary healing properties and superhuman immortality bestowing powers of this fascinating fungi, are a source of widespread symbolism and meaning. Humans across cultures and lands can easily drift off into the collective unconscious' Fantasia fairyland of dancing mushrooms, so deep do our roots grow with the wonderful fungi.

Whilst we have been gathering and munching away for millennia, it is only in the last few years that the significance and might of the mycelium, the invisible organism underneath the mushroom that actually produces it, has gained  more widespread attention.



So what exactly is this mycelium? Mycelium is the thread or filament like body of the fungus which lives inside a substrate. The substrate is usually any decaying matter such as soil or wood, think forest floor or trees as an example. 

The threads or filaments that consist the mycelium are created by the germination of spores, that produce single celled structures known as hyphae or shiro, that branch out and group together in a interwoven and vast network of cells. The fungus  reproduces by spores rather than by seed or photosynthesis as in the case of plants. Mushrooms are actually the "fruit" or "flower" that blooms from the reproducing fungi, carrying more spores to reproduce in the environment.

In order for the  fungus to continue to grow and reproduce it must absorb nutrients from it's environment, that is the soil or tree or log that it has made home. It does this in two stages through its mycelium. Firstly, the hyphae secret enzymes into the decaying substrate - soil or wood. The enzymes help break down and digest  the biological polymers into monomers such as sugars. The mycelium then through facilitated diffusion and active transport absorbs these monomers. Humans take in their food and then within our stomachs enzymes breakdown food for absorption. Fungus - mycelium break down or digest substances prior to absorbing them.

A fungus role is vital within an ecosystem as it helps to decompose organic compounds and recycles the matter back into carbon dioxide, water, minerals and nutrients in the soil. It is a precious food source for many soil invertebrates. The production of carbon dioxide is important to surrounding plants as they rely on it to produce oxygen. The mycelium assists in increasing the efficiency of water and nutrient absorption for plants and brings resistance to many plants pathogens. There is actually no limit to how large a fungus can grow due to its rapid ability to breakdown organics in the soil and an equally fast distribution of nutrients through its dynamic network, along with great resistance to pathogens and it's rapid repair response after damage. The largest reported organism in the world is in eastern Oregon, a mycelial mat (mycelium) that spans 2.400 acres and is believed to be 2,200 years of age.



Due to it's ability to decompose organic matter, and recycle it back into the ecosystem to further enhance life around it, mycelium may very well prove to one of the most significant organisms that graces the planet earth. As pollutants and contaminants in soil such as pesticides and petroleum are in fact organic molecules, fungi has the potential, as a bioremediator, for removing their harmful presence from the environment.

Some of the enzymes produced by mycelial colonies are powerful at breaking down long chains of hydrocarbons. The colony is so efficient at secreting these enzymes and breaking down the hydrocarbons that soil contaminated with them and other toxic oils can be restored in a matter of months. Further research is under way in finding how efficiently different strains of mushrooms perform this. When these hydrocarbons have been broken down, the fungus produces lovely blooms of mushrooms and the surrounding environment is nourished, alive and thriving.

This breakthrough research has been pioneered by mycologist Paul Stamets and is thoroughly exciting and groundbreaking news for an earth that desperately needs clean up solutions that do not bring further imbalance or their own set of problems, for the problem they are addressing. In particular are fossil fuel companies and landfills with plastics that stockpile waste, burying it in the ground that then leaches further into the surrounding environment and eventually the water table. 

What we have within the humble mushroom is the capacity for a self perpetuating cycle, where we can clean up and rehabilitate damaged soil and environments that can then go on and prosper to serve the greater good in the form of oxygen giving trees, medicinal mushrooms for disease and the list could expand from there, just like the mycelium.

Paul Stamets talks on Ted about the ways mushrooms can save the world:


Mushrooms Culinary Delight and Health Benefits.


Mycelium . 2011. Mycelium . Australian Fungi Website. [Accessed 19 December 2011].

Mushrooms Break Down Oil and Plastic in Bioremediation. 2011. [Accessed 19 December 2011].

Mushroom Power [ Accessed 19 December 2011]