A celebration of fungi, what they have done for us so far and their staggering potential to do very much more.
Occurring worldwide, from the lichen covered rocks of polar regions to deserts, fungi appear in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial forms. Many are microscopic and unicellular such as the yeasts that serve us so well in the kitchen and brewery and trouble us as parasitic infections like Candida, others are enormous, such as Oregon’s famous honey fungus (Armillaria ostoyae) that extends 9.65 Km2 and is somewhere between 2000 and 8500 years old, the world’s largest living organism and probably the oldest. Older than the animals, fungal evolution has been essential to the development of life on Earth as we know it and their value to the ecology and human economy is enormous. Mysterious and fascinating, the force of their growth can raise concrete slabs and crack asphalt. Their metabolic processes can raise bread, produce alcohol and slay pathogenic bacteria. They can also digest the most noxious chemicals known to man and serve us as bio-pesticides. Can they also beat cancer? Evidence that gives real cause for hope is amassing.
As both healers and killers, fungi are strong medicine and worthy of respect. While Destroying angels, Death caps and the recent deadly outbreak of Cryptococcus on Vancouver island represent the dark side of fungal influence, millions of us world-wide owe our lives to the wonderful work of antibiotics like penicillin and cephalosporin. But why stop at antibiotics? Advocates of mycopharmacology like Jeff Chilton, long-time mushroom cultivator, believe that modern western medicine has much to learn from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in terms of medicinal application of fungi. Ganoderma lucidum is a case in point. This “mushroom of immortality” known commonly as the Reishi, is a variety of polypore bracket fungus, a “superior” herb valued since 300 B.C. by TCM practitioners and unique among medically studied mushrooms for not only containing active antitumor polysaccharides, but also a high content of terpenoids. Research has shown Reishi’s action to be immuno-stimulating rather than directly toxic to tumor cells. Though non-toxic chemotherapy could benefit millions, Chilton emphasizes their wider role should be “as a cornerstone for preventive medicine and a means to maintain a high level of overall resistance to disease in general.” Chilton states that despite fungi’s considerable promise, “only a dozen or so species have been seriously utilized or studied. Including: Ganoderma species (reishi), Lentinus edodes (shiitake), Polyporus umbellatus, Grifola frondosa (maitake), Coriolus versicolor, Poria cocos, Cordyceps species, Auricularia auricula, Hericium erinaceus, Schizophyllum commune, Flammulina velutipes, and Pleurotus species.” There are many more fungi awaiting broader medicinal study. Citing from their book Icons of Medicinal Fungi from China, (Ying, et al., Science Press, Beijing, 1987), Chilton informs us that from the 272 species with reported medicinal properties documented by the authors, over sixty contain polysaccharides (notably glucans and mannans) which “inhibit the growth of specific tumors”in laboratory test animals.
That sounds good to me!
Even acknowledging the Chinese engagement with fungi, eminent mycologist Paul Stamets says,” we are just beginning to discover the importance of species in this barely understood genome”. Of the estimated 1.5 million species in the fungal kingdom, under 100,000 have been identified. Fungi are now classified in their own Kingdom. 1998 studies declared that fungi split off from the plant kingdom about nine million years before the animals did. They were officially recognized as differing from plants in some fundamental and significant matters of physiology and heterotrophic lifestyle: chitinous cell walls, self motile spores that swim with flagella and none of the chlorophyl that enables green plants to photosynthesize. Stamets exemplifies the Kingdom’s great medicinal potentials citing a new species of leaf fungus recently discovered in the forests of the Congo that replicates the beneficial action of insulin for diabetics – but is orally active! Also a new species of fungus parasitic on yew trees, Taxomyces andreanae, that yields Taxol, a compound proven against breast cancer.
Stamets reports that Lion’s Mane fungus (Hericium erinaceus) pictured above has been found beneficial in prolonging the lives of cancer patients especially in cases of gastric and oesophageal cancers. Japanese research on the active compounds known as erinacines finds them to be strong stimulators of nerve growth factor synthesis with potential for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and stroke rehabilitation. I find this news particularly exciting and hope that more efforts and funding will be brought to bear on this increasingly important research area.
Fungi in the kitchen
For most of us mushrooms may seem more at home in the kitchen than in the lab and there is a wonderful range of flavours amongst culinary mushrooms. Some cultures are particularly mycophilic e.g. the Italians and Japanese. Perigord truffles, White truffles, Matsutake, Boletus and Chantarelle mushrooms – all the gourmet mushrooms, some worth their weight in gold at point of consumption, are mychorrizal fungi, that is they live in close mutualistic associations with particular plant roots. They enable the plants’ roots to absorb minerals and soil nutrients in exchange for plant sugars and carbon. As the mycelial filaments extend out in a mesh some distance from the roots, they greatly increase the effective physical range of nutrient uptake. University of Michigan doctoral student Miroslav Kummel believes “plants may be actively ‘choosing’ the species of fungus that supports the highest growth for the plant.”
A walk in the forest can provide good food for the mycophagist.
‘Penny Bun’ Boletes are highly valued by the French. A small amount of these fungi impart fine flavour to enhance soups, stews, rice and pasta dishes. You can now find them for sale in good English Green grocer’s shops such as Stephenson’s in Appleby. I haven’t seen them fresh in supermarkets here yet, but the time may eventually come.
To date, cultivators have had difficulty farming these fungi outside the regions where they naturally occur. Time will tell whether New Zealand’s naturally low mychorrizal populations will allow investments in Matsutake plantations there to bear the phallic fruiting bodies that Japanese mycophagists prize so highly.
Along with edible mushrooms, the unicellular and multicellular members of this kingdom also enhance our diets with leavened bread, beer, wine and the many tasty veinous cheeses such as Stilton and Danish Blue. The economic value of culinary fungi in world trade is impressive – estimates of US $ 8 billion in 1993 were probably conservative even then. In the U.K., U.S. and some progressive European nations shoppers can now enjoy a high protein – zero cholesterol meat substitute called Quorn, derived from Fusarium venenatum, a filamentous fungus that when textured and flavoured to resemble chicken, pork and beef makes a very pleasant meat alternative with none of the hormonal influences of soya.
Fried Quorn bacon and egg with field mushrooms – delicious!
From a culinary point of view life would be very much the worse for most of us without fungi – it would be simply unbearable for the gourmande. On an ecological level it would be extremely unlikely for a human gourmande to exist at all without fungi. This is because they have served so long (at least since the early Devonian period, 400 mya) and so well as symbionts, and decomposers (primary through tertiary) freeing up the nutrients and minerals from decaying matter for recycling into new generations of life forms that make life, as we know it now, possible. Possibly establishing themselves on land before plants, the fungi had certainly established many of the same ecological niches then that make them so crucially important today, furthermore, in the case of the enigmatic Prototaxites (declared a fungus in 2007) it seems that they towered up to 20 feet tall!
Fungi play a crucial role in both forestry and pasture maintenance. Successful tropical dipterocarp reforestation programs are highly dependent on planting ‘mother soil’ inoculated with mychorrizal fungi along with the seedlings. When acid rain from noxious industrial and automotive gases kills trees, it does so indirectly, by killing the mychorrizal fungi that provide essential nutrients to the host trees.
Role of Fungi in Environmental Rehabilitation
Thankfully, mushrooms even come to our aid in environmental rehabilitation. Matching the right fungal agent with the pollutant is the key to success in Mycoremediation. That is the new buzzword in waste clean-up and Paul Stamets has achieved trail-blazing fame by utilizing White rot fungi, Brown rot fungi and Oyster mushrooms’ specialization as decomposers to break down noxious hydrocarbons from petrochemical and pesticide pollution. One study he conducted with bioremediation company Thomas, on a pile of oil polluted soil employed Oyster mushrooms to reduce over 95% of the noxious PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) to non-toxic components in just four weeks. Concentrations of PAH fell from 10,000 ppm to under 200 ppm in just eight weeks, three comparable test piles treated with nothing, enzymes, and bacteria respectively, were still “dead, dark and stinky” while the mycoremediated pile became “an oasis of life”.
Patents to mycodegrade VX and Sarin gases, two of the most poisonous substances on Earth, have been applied for and fungi can even sequester toxic heavy metals. Even depleted uranium can be mycodegraded to a safer state according to BBC News. Prof. Gadd of Dundee University “found that free-living and plant fungi can colonise depleted uranium surfaces and transform the metal into uranyl phosphate minerals.” Gadd states “fungi are perfectly suited as biogeochemical agents”.
Fungi can also play a very important role in biopest control against insects, see photo above. Stamets has developed the use of parasitic fungus to be highly effective against termites – the bane of wooden houses in many parts of the world. Stamets also uses mycelial mats to protect deforested land from erosion and as mycofilters for cleansing water of toxic waste and pathogenic microorganisms, including nematodes.
Fungi can also help our insect friends. Warwick University researcher Dr Dave Chandler hopes that his team have found the entomopathogenic fungal nemesis of the varroa mite (Varroa destructor) so deadly to honey bees. He explains “we examined 50 different types of fungi that afflict other insects (known as entomopathogenic fungi) to see if they would kill varroa. We needed to find fungi that were effective killers of varroa, had a low impact on the bees, and worked in the warm and dry conditions typically found in bee hives. Of the original 50 fungi we are now focusing on four that best match those three requirements.” This is important research and deserves higher funding priority, our civilizations owe a lot to honey bees and cannot afford to lose them!
As medicines, food, purifiers, and protectors, the humble fungi make formidable allies for the mycologically astute. Acknowledging the many fine qualities of our fungal companions it seems more important than ever that we better preserve their habitats. Enlightened men like Paul Stamets are leading the way and inspiring more intelligent human-fungal interaction. A challenging question for our age might well be “how can mankind team up with fungi in more, and better managed symbiotic relationships?” What a team we could be!
Coming soon on Hugh’s Herbs: Growing your own Oyster mushrooms!
For more on the power of mushrooms, please see:
Paul Stamets: 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World
Fungi Perfecti Website
Fungus Foot bath Could Save Bees
Text and images by Charles Paxton unless otherwise stated