What is a Mushroom? You could say it’s the little toadstool you see every day on your morning run. You could say it’s those tasty things in the salad you eat every night. You could even say that it is the blue mold that grows after your bread has been left out too long, or even the key ingredient to a lifesaving medicine that you take that you never think about. Though you do not realize it, you are surrounded by mushrooms everywhere, and here is their story.
A spore, floating through the forest, held aloft by the tiniest unnoticeable breeze. This is where our story begins, but also where it ends. Mushrooms have a very interesting life cycle, starting with the spore. Though many are released from the mother plant, only a select few find the perfect spot to germinate and grow into an adult plant and have spores of its own. Our spore is one of those lucky ones, however, and as soon as it lands upon its preferred spot (perhaps the forest floor, or a fallen piece of bark wood, depending upon the species), the growth process starts. A tiny hyphae starts to grow after a period out of the growth spot, and soon sprouts into what will eventually become a mushroom button cap, complete with a long, tall sprout. Not all mushroom life cycles are like this, however. Take the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a type of fungus family inhabiting parts of South America. It takes a unique outlook on life, inspiring the famous video game turned show The Last of Us, a zombie apocalypse type scenario. In real life, we start with the spore, which floats through the air till it finds a suitable growth spot like any normal fungus. The part where things get freaky is that the Cordyceps doesn’t grow out of fallen tree bark or the mulch of the forest floor like a normal mushroom. Instead, it finds a host. Every Ophiocordyceps species is specifically engineered to infect a single species of ant or other insect, so we’ll go with the Bullet ant. The spore lands upon a suitable worker ant’s body and starts infecting it, spreading its cells throughout the ant’s body. For the next couple days, the ant continues as usual, unknowing of its coming doom. It forages at night and continues its daily schedule. Only when the Ophiocordyceps is ready is when the infection starts to show. The ant’s behavior starts to change, it doesn’t go about its normal duties anymore like it used to. Instead of being active at night, it becomes hyperactive and is active all the time. Compelled by the fungus, it climbs up a tall plant, such as a vine or tree, and when at a suitable level the Ophiocordyceps forces the ant to latch down in a death grip and it dies, killed by the Ophiocordyceps. With the energy burst from consuming the ant’s insides, a tiny fruiting body grows out of the ant, and releases its spores. For the Ophiocordyceps, it looks a little bit like a long, hardened noodle in light tan orangey hues, but for other different types of mushrooms employing similar methods, there are mushroom caps to spread the spores, and thus the life cycle continues. Though this species we followed was engineered to the bullet ant, there are thousands of species of manipulative fungi that have evolved over thousands of years to infect and manipulate thousands of different species. Moths, flies, centipedes, even arachnids such as spiders are not safe. Mushrooms and fungi have been around to adapt to life long before the first ape thought its first sentient thought.
Mushrooms are more like humans, though, than one would think, even more so than plants. While mushrooms and fungi are mostly saprophytic (they consume dead organisms for energy) there are also predatory and parasitic types as well. They “inhale” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide and have a chitinous shell protecting them that is very similar to the chitinous shells of spiders and other arthropods. Fungi split away from animals 1.5 million years ago, 9 years later from plants, and they rely on an external food source, instead of being autonomous and photosynthesizing like plants.
The fruiting body of a mushroom is only the part poking out of the ground, the tip of the iceberg if you will. Underneath, mycelium, a rootlike structure that makes up most of the mushroom’s body, spreads out underneath our very feet and connects to other plants. Through this connection with other plants, it can do incredible things, and the mycelium network has been dubbed the mushroom internet because of it. Trees and other plants communicate using the network, sending warnings of things like pests or weather, or even boosts of energy.
So, what if mushrooms have cool life cycles and are like humans and created the internet thousands of years before we did, what does that have to do with us? Well, it has been found that mushrooms give incredible boosts to the body, and while the world is only just diving back into using and studying mushrooms for medicinal purposes, mushrooms have been used in herbal remedies for thousands of years, from various ancient Chinese medications to the Aztec using hallucinogenic mushrooms the relax. Recently, scientists discovered the largest organism on the planet—an Armillaria gallica that’s been estimated to be 400 tons and 2,500 years old. The title has since been taken, but the big fuss was that it was a simple honey mushroom, the mycelium stretching so far that it became huge. Not only is this an amazing discovery, but it could also have other effects: after coming back to the site of the Armillaria gallica and taking several studies and tests, it was discovered how the mycelial network was able to survive for so long: it had an extremely low mutation rate. This, with further research, could lead scientists to a cure for cancer, and that’s just one species of mushroom. There are thousands around the world with amazing benefits to the human body, and the mind. Through several controlled therapy lessons, it has been confirmed that mushrooms containing Psilocybin, a hallucinogenic drug that was deemed illegal in the united states for a long time, has a positive impact upon the brain and could even help cure depression.
Along with this, scientists have been investigating how fungi and mushrooms could help with the world’s pollution crisis. In a landfill in Islamabad, Pakistan, a fungus was discovered that eats plastic, dubbed Aspergillus tubingensis. The particular plastic it specializes in, polyurethane plastic, which is used in foams and adhesives, can sit around in the ocean and soil of the planet for thousands of years before degrading. And new species of fungi are being discovered every day that can help with other problems, such as, according to a BBC article published in 2019, “cleaning up oil pollution from the soil, degrading harmful heavy metals, consuming persistent pesticides, and even helping to rehabilitate harmful radioactive sites.” Beyond this, new, green alternatives are being developed to lessen the necessity of plastic in and of itself. Mycelium, the root-like structures that make up most of the body of a mushroom, is being used to construct foam-like packaging that is ready to use. The mycelium is simply put into a mold with leftover hemp and flour and the mycelium consumes the hemp, filling in the mold. When the proper shape is achieved after only nine days, the mycelium is heat treated to halt the growth and the new piece of packing material can now, well, package. Packaging material isn’t the only thing that can be made with mushrooms, however. Mycelium combined with the waste of corn stalks has been used to make a synthetic leather that takes days to make as opposed to animal leather, which takes years, and designers are already producing clothing and shoes made of the fake leather. And by fusing wood together with the fungi Trametes versicolor, a fire-proof, termite-proof, sound muffling building material is being produced, along with hundreds of other utilities such as mycelial bandages and even smart concrete that will “heal” its cracks. The possibilities are endless.
And even beyond the medical, building, and food capabilities, there is still more that fungi could be utilized for, such as space travel. Fungi, it has been discovered can survive and even thrive is the great vortex of space. The spores darken and develop more melanin, which may be able to protect against radiation and convert it into energy, like plants and photosynthesis. Other than controlled tests done on certain types of fungi, the only example we have is frighteningly similar to some kind of Sci-fi space horror movie. The year is 1988, abord the Russian space station, Mir, when something odd happens. Described by what a soviet microbiologist called, “an aggressive space fungus”, the said fungi formed a network of hyphae and started eating away at the very station. After a routine daily cleaning, the fungus was all but destroyed and the threat eradicated with only one window being compromised, its rubber seal having been eaten away, but how was such an invasion possible? Afterwards, several different saprophytic species which had been eating away at, most likely, the dead skin cells shed by the astronauts. While unexpected, humans shed hundreds of thousands of dead skin cells every day, which would provide ample food source for the fungus. Though it was determined to be earth-born, the invasion aboard Mir proves that space travel for fungi could be possible, even in the vortex of space, and some day fungi could prove extremely useful to human space travel. While both animals and plants rely on gravity for growth, mushrooms are unfazed by this. While also being extremely nutritional and delicious, mushrooms do not require much time, space, or resources to grow, as evidenced by the easy grow kits that can be purchased at local grocery stores. Beyond this, because of their ability to consume radiation and grow fast, mushrooms are a good option for easy habitats that could be used on the moon or mars. Paul Stamets, a renowned mushroom expert, also suggests mushrooms could be used in one more way: as a drug. Magic mushrooms, or mushrooms containing psilocybin, a hallucinogenic drug, are already being released for testing in depression therapy. One of the bigger limitations of space travel is that the astronauts would be stuck in a small space for a long period of time without having much access to earth or other people. Going insane while on the long months of deep space travel is not an impossibility, but when taking psilocybin, while also giving the user extremely calming hallucinations and helping them feel a part of one big conscience, if used in a therapeutic setting could exert extremely positive influences upon the mind, and help the user have a more positive and creative outlook on life. Along with space travel, another astromycoligical endeavor could be making mushroom satellites. There are currently thousands of satellites orbiting earth made of unbiodegradable materials. Once they are decommissioned they are left to orbit the earth, becoming risk to collisions with other satellites, space debris, or simply orbiting too close to the earth that they fall into its atmosphere and gravity pulls them downwards. This presents its own risk because the satellite catches aflame and splits into thousands of pieces of metal, polluting the ocean and serving as a potential risk to both the wildlife and humans if the debris fell somewhere inhabited. Satellites made with mycelium would not only be cheap and easily biodegradable, but they could also be fireproof, making them safe for decommission.
Fungi and mushrooms have many untapped possibilities, with the cures to uncurable diseases, the solution to the earth’s pollution and climate crisis, and the potential to cure hunger forever, along with many more bright endeavors for the future. Someday, with the help of that little toadstool you see every day on your morning run, earth could become the utopia some only dream about.
This was an informative paper I wrote for school. If you’d like to read more like it, please let me know! Sayonara, Me.
This was a paper that the author (my daughter) wrote and researched for one of her school papers and the opinions in the paper are hers. We encourage our kids to write and publish some of their work as part of Kids Corner, writing for everyone but especially for kids.
We’ve sold and moved off our cruising sailboat and back to the US. However, we continue to travel as a family. Shortly after getting back to the US we purchased a used school bus reborn and repurposed as an RV (a skoolie) and moved onboard it. So we have the family, dog, kitten onboard our skoolie. We’re slowly making our way across the US to register our bus in California and then we’ll figure out where we go next.
We won’t be done with our skoolie life wherever we end up but we do have to get her registered and retitled.