How mushrooms clean up the planet (and other fungi powers)

They are among the most remarkable organisms on earth, yet mostly invisible. Their web expands and connects the dots of our entire global ecosystems and are essential for the cycle of life. Fungi. “The fungi kingdom had a decisive role in the evolution of life, not just in the previous time, but even in current times.” They degrade almost everything, sponge up some of the most hazardous pollutants and can even create entirely new materials. They are strange and magical in ways you would never imagine. So could they potentially help to clean up the mess on our planet and become the building blocks of our future? But first of all, what are mushrooms actually? Let’s explore their hidden existence. The mushrooms you put in your risotto, you see on your rotten veggies or find in the forest are equivalent to the tip of an iceberg. They are their own realm, different to animals and plants. Their secret life evolved over a billion years ago and during evolution fungi became the trailblazers of life as we know it. Mining nutrients from rocks and providing them to plants millions of years ago they helped plants to grow and produce oxygen, making our lives today possible. Within a couple of hundred million years  these microscopic life forms developed into real giants. On the Arab peninsula archaeologists found a fossil they initially thought was a tree. It turned out it was actually an 8-meter-high mushroom that grew 500 million years ago. However, the mushrooms we see on the surface is only the fruit of something much more vast. The real magic happens beneath the surface where the mycelium – the rootlike web of the fungi – mostly grows. It is the largest known organism on the planet. The mycelium of the “Humongous Fungus” in Oregon spreads through an area of 9 km2 and is estimated to be up to 8650 years old. Fungi are among the few organisms on the planet that can significantly break down lignin, a component in wood cells, but also present in fruits and any kind of tree or plant that decays after dying. “So if in the environment that would accumulate, that would be detrimental, then the nutrients would not be available to the plants again or to any other life form in the soil. So it’s absolutely essential that there is someone who can degrade that fraction.” Erika Kothe is a mycologist at the University of Jena in Germany. She’s investigating the symbiosis between plants and fungi. Fungi are essential to keep our soils healthy and scientists are just beginning to explore their amazing abilities. “So if fungi can help in the decomposition of a living thing, which is more complex than  any organic compound, then this same set of organisms can also help in breaking down  any organic pollutants in the environment.” Udeme Dickson lectures in analytical environmental chemistry at the University of Reading in the UK. He’s looking into how fungi could potentially  help clear land of oil pollution. “We have a lot of studies which [have] proved that  toxic substances have been degraded by fungi.” Some  44,000 oil fields worldwide, illegal extraction and leaks in refineries and oil-pipelines have led to an estimated five million oil contaminated sites worldwide. Fuels and crude oil contain a wide range of pollutants, among them polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH’s, one of the most worrying pollutants of our age. They kill flora and fauna, damage organs and can cause cancer in humans and animals. Back in 1998 scientists had already found that mushrooms do grow on heavily oil contaminated soils. In this case oyster mushrooms. After 8 weeks the total amount of contaminants in the soil plummeted by 99%, with PAH’s also broken down into less toxic substances. But just how do fungi function? Well, organic pollutants like fuel oils originate from dead organic matter, so fungi degrade them with the same enzyme they degrade wood and leaves. Contaminants are chopped into smaller compounds which are less harmful or not dangerous at all, so they can become part of the nutrient cycle again. Some are degraded to CO2 or water. “The concept of introducing, going back to organisms, which naturally perform the role of the degradation and using them to degrade and wipe out pollutants in the  environment is a very promising route.” But it doesn’t end with organic matter. Fungi can also treat soils contaminated with arsenic, lead and mercury from mining operations, or even radioactive elements. In 1986 a nuclear reactor meltdown and explosion in Chernobyl spread devastating radioactive contamination, making the region uninhabitable to this day. In a trial near the nuclear reactor Erika Kothe used fungi together with host plants. “We could show that strontium, which is even a radioactive element half of the bioavailable strontium could be taken up by the sunflower in the growth period of 12 weeks.” Later the plants can be cut down, burned, and the strontium enriched ashes can be stored more safely. The soil is left significantly cleaner. What the fungi do here is change the mobility of the elements, fixing them in the soil, absorbing them, or helping plants take them up. Samples taken to a Russian industrial site showed that fungi accumulated up to 40 times more nickel and copper than the soil they were growing in. So we might already be holding the solutions for heavily polluted soil in our hands. But as promising as some experiments are, many also fail. “That means I have 10 different experimental setups and it went well in seven and it didn’t go well in three or the other way around. So what should I do, I cannot put that as a basis of putting into action real remediation schemes as an authority.” Treating soils with fungi is feasible in rather small areas. It’s cheaper and more eco-friendly than conventional methods removing and burning it. It’s not an easy method though, especially in entire forests or mining regions. Ecosystems are unique and translocated fungi from  another area do not necessarily grow in them. Promoting local species that can do the job would be key, but this takes time and patience. Of course fungi can also decompose any organic  waste from agriculture and the food industry. So, what about using their power to degrade  organic matter to build the blocks of our future? Like building a home made of mushrooms. No, we’re not talking about mouldy walls and cellars. And not about living like the Smurfs do in the TV series either – well, maybe… It might sound strange, but in 2014 architectural team “The Living” built this 12m high tower in the city of New York. But not with stone, bricks or concrete. Yes, you guessed it, they used 10,000 bricks made of mycelium. “They’re very inexpensive to produce. They can be grown and fabricated in almost any conditions. So they don’t need specialized equipment. And then when you actually put these bricks out into the world, they’re very strong, especially for their weight. But they’re a lightweight brick.” David Benjamin headed the project and is Associate Professor for sustainable architecture at Columbia University. The production of materials like concrete and steel for construction are responsible for roughly 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. You might want to watch a video we did how the global construction industry is fuelling a sand shortage and works with mafia-like structures. On the other hand crop residues all around the world are often burned. In Delhi for example in winter this contributes significantly to the city’s air pollution. This is the alternative: For the tower, crop residues from corn fields were seeded with a fungus which feeds on them. Placed in a mould the fungus mycelium colonized it entirely within a week, eating up all the agricultural waste. It dries into a solid brick form creating a new and low-carbon building material. It’s not flammable and its insulation  properties are extremely good, it doesn’t only match some concrete’s capabilities, but also those  of polystyrene and plastic, which are standard. The bricks simply rot when the house is pulled down. “I can imagine scenarios where people all over the world, sometimes in resource constrained environments, are growing their own bricks. It’s totally viable.” The bricks aren’t as firm as concrete. However, by  combining the mycelium with other compostable materials like bamboo, and designing a framework  to distribute stresses evenly, scientists from the University of Karlsruhe showed that concrete’s advantage can be mitigated. “One of its biggest challenges is durability  because this is a material where if it gets damaged or cut it has the potential to absorb moisture.” That means to make it a realistic approach for housing, future homes would need different layers, using our mushroom bricks as the core of a wall, but protecting them from moisture damage from the outside. Ok, the mycelium bricks aren’t firm enough to build a skyscraper yet, but for low rise buildings they could actually work. The idea of fungus housing is still at an early stage, with examples more likely to be seen at art exhibitions than in neighbourhoods, but the potential is huge. Fungus thrives in almost every region and any climate. And with our growing population the need for affordable and sustainable housing is growing as well. Fungus bricks could become a local and easy means of answering these demands. With accelerating climate change and pollution  putting increasing pressure on our ecosystems, methods to tackle its degradation are becoming more urgent than ever. In one way or the other fungi will play a decisive role here. They’re essential to the health of our planet. We just need to make use of their secret powers. Did you know that the use of fungi goes back at least 6000 years? Ancient cultures used them for transcendental experiences  and people still use them  for spiritual reasons today. The discovery of using them in antibiotics was nothing short of revolutionary. So why not take the next step and use them to clean up the planet? What’s your opinion? Do you think fungi can help to solve some of our problems? Let us know in the comments. Share and like the video. As you can see we put a lot of love and effort into it.

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