Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Fantastic Fungi

Mushrooms can do a lot more than you may think—like save collapsing bee populations, eliminate plastic waste, clean soil, and provide building material. | Photo courtesy Fungi.com

Nature is unfathomably mysterious. The Earth is a living organism, and there's so much we still don't even know about it. Poetically, however, it may die that way, too. That is unless we put differences aside and assume the courage to actually do something about it. I know you’ve heard something along these lines before, and that last sentence probably gives you some degree of existential angst or another type of emotional response. But hear me out, I guarantee you this article isn’t heading in the direction you expect, like telling you to carpool or take shorter showers.

Due to the alarming rate that global temperatures are rising, life here on earth is in jeopardy. Yet, it is only in the last twelve years of existence have we discovered the world’s largest organism – a fungus in Oregon that covers over 2,200 acres of forest soil. That’s 665 football fields of a single organism in the Malheur National Forest dubbed the "Humongous Fungus." Who would have thought that something so vast –  let alone something that is alive – could go undetected for so long?

Not quite an animal and not quite a plant, fungi are something else entirely. The fungi kingdom is one of the most ancient kingdoms on earth, with fossil records of ancient mushrooms dating back to the Neoproterozoic Era over a billion years ago. Fast forward to the present day and we are only just now starting to realize the complexity and usefulness of fungi because of advanced mycological research. Mycologists are now telling us that the potential mushrooms hold for useful human applications could be the future of sustainability for our planet. They are saying that fungi could be our saving grace and ensure the future of our species. Take for example the current research on how extracts from polypore mushroom mycelia are reducing viruses in honeybees who are one of the key players in producing our food and balancing our ecosystem.

The Western Honey bee (Apis Mellifera) and other members of the genus Apis, aka bees, play a vital role in the ecological stability of wild plant communities within areas of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Honey bees are estimated to contribute over $15 billion annually to the US agriculture economy through the pollination of numerous fruits, nuts, and vegetables. 

“Approximately a third of the crops grown require bees for cross-pollination to thrive,” says Dr. Steve Sheppard, an entomologist at the University of Washington.

We need these little buzzing buddies of ours to help produce the food that feeds our societies. We need them to survive. However, over the past decade, beekeepers have reported dramatic increases in bee colony losses with annual averages as high as 30% in some areas. The phenomenon is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and is affecting bee populations all over the globe, but especially here in the United States. Oklahoma, for example, was one of eight states where more than 60% of hives have died since April 2014, according to a survey released by the Bee Informed Partnership funded in part by the U.S. Agriculture Department. It’s a grim outlook for bees and humans alike. But there is hope – and it’s mushrooms.

According to a recent peer-reviewed article published in Nature by renowned mycologist Paul Stamets and other mycologists titled Extracts of Polypore Mushroom Mycelia Reduce Viruses in Honey Bees, a certain species of fungi has been proven to increase the immunity of bees to viruses like Varroa and the Lake Sinai Virus (LSV) that are currently contributing to the rapid decline of bee populations from CCD. 

Below is an excerpt from the article published in Nature:

“Bees have been observed foraging on mushroom mycelium, suggesting that they may be deriving medicinal or nutritional value from fungi. Fungi are known to produce a wide array of chemicals with antimicrobial activity, including compounds active against bacteria, other fungi. Or viruses.”

Mushroom expert Paul Stamets standing next to wild fungi. | Photo courtesy NPR.org

Stamets and mycologists put this hypothesis to the test in 2018 by experimenting with extracts from the mycelium of multiple polypore fungal species known to have antiviral properties in what is now known as the largest ever beehive experiment in history. They found that extracts from the amadou (Fomes) and reishi (Ganoderma) mushrooms reduced the levels of honey bee deformed wing virus (DWV) and the Lake Sinai Virus (LSV). Field trials concluded that colonies fed the reishi mushroom extract exhibited a 79-fold reduction in DWV and 45,000-fold reduction in LSV compared to control colonies. Their findings prove that honey bees can gain health benefits from fungi and their antimicrobial compounds. And that’s only the beginning.

Paul Stamets and colleagues at his company Fungi Perfecti, who are dedicated to “explore, study, preserve, and spread knowledge about the use of fungi for helping people and the planet,” are currently working on a functional and marketable bee feeder containing a syrup-like compound derived from these fungi that actively work to protect bees from the viruses like LSV and DWV that are killing off colonies. Researchers at Fungi Perfecti aim to have the bee feeders in mass production and available to the general public by the end of 2020, according to Stamets’ latest interview with Joe Rogan on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. But fungi aren’t just helping the bees. The list of sustainable benefits that can be reaped from mushrooms goes on.

In 2012, researchers at Yale University discovered that Pestalotiopsis Microspora, an endophytic fungus isolated from a plant in the Amazon jungle, is capable of breaking down polyurethane, the main chemical that makes up modern plastics. The mushroom has inspired lots of research into various forms of fungi that can degrade plastic without retaining the toxicity of the material. Currently, little is known about the use of endophytes in fungal remediation, and much more research is certainly needed. However, it is known now that endophytic fungi are one of the most diverse categories of fungi as any given plant can contain hundred species of them, and they are also one of the least studied branches in the fungal kingdom. 

There has also been research on 'training' a given fungus to consume substrates that it wouldn't normally grow on. For example, in remediation work with chemicals, the targeted pollutant can be introduced to the fungus at increasing concentrations until the fungus learns to produce the right enzyme at the right amount to survive off this chemical at previously toxic levels. This includes chemicals found frequently in oil spills or other toxic chemicals spilled onto the ground that harm the environment. The fungi can and will clean the polluted soil to make it healthy again, even making the once-polluted soil suitable for purposes such as crop production. 

Mushrooms can also serve industrial purposes such as the production of paper, clothing, and even infrastructure like buildings. The cell walls of fungi are made of a biological polymer called chitin, which is similar to cellulose – the key ingredient in plant-based paper. This means that mushrooms could help to substitute paper made from trees – a diminishing resource. There are also many companies finding creative alternatives to plastics, which can also reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce. These include companies such as MycoWorks, who turn mycelium and agriculture products by-products into leather, and Ecovative Design, who are collaborating with companies to create alternative meat products, biodegradable packaging materials, animal-free leather, and much more. Fungi is inspiring creative minds all over the world and bringing them together for the noble mission of healing our planet and ensuring the future for our children and our children’s children. That’s why I and a group of fungi enthusiasts at the University of Utah have decided to further the cause.

The first step towards actual change is to have a conversation about it. That means raising the conscious awareness of an issue by talking about it with your friends, loved ones, classmates, coworkers, and so forth. Then, and only then, can you start to ask questions like, “OK, how do we combat this issue? Can we delay it? Can we prevent it?" As students and local environmental activists, we believe that we have found a way to ignite this conversation. And, we believe we have found a way that's enjoyable and fun for everybody – by watching a movie. 

Fantastic Fungi is a documentary film directed by Louie Schwartzberg that came out this year and has been screening at select movie theaters around The United States and Canada for a few months now. Apart from receiving a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it is a consciousness-shifting film that takes you on an immersive journey through time and scale into the beautiful earth beneath our feet that houses a lucrative, underground network that can heal our planet. Through the eyes and research of renowned scientists and mycologists like Paul Stamets, best-selling authors Michael Pollan, Eugenia Bone, Andrew Weil, and others who all appear in the film, we can become aware of the immense beauty, stark intelligence, and applicable solutions that the fungi kingdom offers us in response to some of our most pressing medical, therapeutic, and environmental challenges facing us today. 

We will be hosting a screening of a Fantastic Fungi at the Post Theater on the University of Utah campus in early of 2020. An exact screening date as well as pricing information is currently in the works and will be released shortly. We aim for students at the U to have free entry to the film and for tickets to be fairly priced for all. Fantastic Fungi presents to you the inspiring solutions for the environmental challenges society is facing today. We aim to help develop a more thoughtful recognition of the momentous ecological benefits that humans are naturally provided with from fungi. We hope that we can influence you and other members of Salt Lake City’s social and academic communities to consider nature’s restorative potential towards the physical, mental, and environmental catastrophes that are now facing western culture. Because in a world where mankind is hurling itself towards darkness, a sliver of light remains. We just have to know where to look, even if it’s right beneath our feet.

Consider the benefits of mushrooms on a societal scale. | Photo courtesy Inhabitat

Works Cited

Bailey, Brianna. “Oklahoma Bee Colonies Dying in Large Numbers.” Oklahoman.com, Oklahoman, 2 June 2015, oklahoman.com/article/5423850/oklahoma-bee-colonies-dying-in-large-numbers.

Chen, Angus. “A Plastic-Eating Bacterium Might Help Deal With Waste One Day.” NPR, NPR, 10 Mar. 2016, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/03/10/469972237/this-plastic-eating-bacterium-might-help-deal-with-waste-one-day.

“Ecovative Design.” Ecovative Design, ecovativedesign.com/.

Fungi Perfecti, fungi.com/.

“MycoWorks.” MycoWorks, www.mycoworks.com/.

Stamets, P.E., Naeger, N.L., Evans, J.D. et al. Extracts of Polypore Mushroom Mycelia Reduce Viruses in Honey Bees. Sci Rep 8, 13936 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-32194-8

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