by Kristina Chew
Perhaps you only think about mushrooms when one sprouts up in your yard or when you’re ordering a pizza. But they have uses far, far beyond the kitchen:
1) An alternative to styrofoam packaging
Mushroom fibers can be used as an eco-friendly alternative to polystyrene, the synthetic (and potentially carcinogenic) polymer most of us encounter as styrofoam. An upstate New York company, Evocative Design, literally grows its product from corn stalks and vegetable husks injected with mushroom spores; the fibers are grown in molds and then baked in an oven so they have the right texture, hardness and elasticity.
Evocative Design recently made a deal with Sealed Air, a huge packaging wrap (think bubble wrap) company, to build factories that will make Restore Mushroom Packaging. One day, your purchases could arrive not packed in “peanuts” but in actual, biodegradable, mushroom fibers.
2) Oil, diesel and other petrochemical spill clean-up
Mycologist and researcher Paul Stamets was contacted by the EPA after the Deepwater Horizon spill to learn about how mushrooms could be used to clean up petrochemicals via a process called mycoremediation, in which toxic compounds are reduced into harmless ones by fungi. The EPA did not actually use his mushrooms but Stamets has carried on with research should future spills occur, developing strains of oyster mushrooms that can tolerate ocean salinity and metabolize oil that is floating on the surface of the sea.
3) A substitute for chemical fertilizers
Stamets’ company, Fungi Perfecti, also produces what he says is an alternative to fertilizer, Mycogrow. According to some organic farmers, Mycogrow fertilizes plants without causing pollution, says Alternet.
Swiss scientists have found that plants and certain kinds of mushrooms, mycorrhizal fungi, form symbiotic relationships. The fungi acquire nutrients (including, in particular, phosphate) and are therefore able to “act as an extension of plants’ root systems, drastically reducing the need for phosphate fertilizers.”
4) An eco-way to clean up farm waste
In addition, mushrooms could help clean up farm waste: Sacks of mycelia (the vegetative part of a fungus that look like a mass of branching threads) can also be used to filter out toxins and bacteria, says Stamets.
5) A fungal insecticide
Pesticides based on fungi can replace the chemicals currently (and widely) used to kill ants and termites. Some mushrooms and toadstools have been found to contain compounds that, if isolated, could be used in developing insecticides.
6) Garbage disposal
We’re talking garbage on a massive, landfill-size scale: Certain types of mushrooms can break down 90 percent of the materials in dirty diapers in two months. Those diaper-eating fungi would be oyster mushrooms, which can grow on dead trees as they eat cellulose, the main component of disposable diapers.
7) A way to overcome the fear of death
That’s a tall order for a small fungus to fullfil.
Before anyone was worrying about eco-friendly packaging and pesticides, people have been turning to psilocybin mushroom — “magic mushrooms” — for their “transformative” (hallucinogenic) effects. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University say that the psychedelic drug in the mushrooms “reliably induce[d] transcendental experiences in volunteers, which offered long-lasting psychological growth and helped people find peace in their lives — without the negative effects.”
Scientists are trying to find the “sweet spot” that would enable people taking psylocybin to, as Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology, says “optimize the positive persistent effects and avoid some of the fear and anxiety that can occur [when taking the mushrooms].” Ultimately, Griffiths and the other researchers are seeking to find out whether such psychedelic experiences could help people recover from addiction and deal with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised if, one day, mushrooms inherit the earth?