The Hidden Life of Mushrooms

Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating
Mushroom Day
April 14th!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a soup, they’re a pleasure.  On pizza, a game-changer.  Grilled on a bun, they are a vegetarian’s best friend.  Mushrooms are one of mother earth’s tastiest foods, but did you know they could also… SAVE THE WORLD?  Researchers like Paul Stamets are teaching the truth about mushrooms, and the more we learn, the more it seems that mushrooms are like a swiss army knife of amazing functions!  They are an essential, if invisible part of every plant’s growth.  They have cancer-destroying properties, and they even give bees the strength they need to pollinate crops.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Mycelial Mat

Mushroom expert Paul Stamets has made the fungus among us his life’s work, revealing that mushrooms are so much more than the “fruiting body” that we purchase in a store.  The hidden part of any mushroom is what’s known as the Mycelium, a massive underground network of tiny fungal threads that permeate practically all soil.  In fact, even a few cubic inches of soil contain miles of Mycelial threads.  These threads do important chemical work, secreting enzymes and compounds that allow them to digest nutrients and grow, but also serve as food for the countless multitudes of tiny invertebrates in the soil.  In this way, Mycelium is essential for soil health and the healthy growth of plants, especially their roots.  A Mycelial mat of one single fungus can spread for miles, linking its aboveground “community” in a network full of nutrients, moisture, and protection as it goes.  The largest known Mycelial mat is the Armillaria in Oregon.  It is one fungal organism that spreads for 3.7 miles, weighs 35,000 tons, and is thought to be 8,000 years old!  The hidden side of mushrooms is so nourishing, connective, and helpful that it has been characterized as “nature’s internet.”

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Mycelium Threads

The Mycelium may be one reason that mushrooms are so packed with compounds that have been shown to have immune-stimulating, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial compounds.  Ancient cultures the world over have long revered medicinal mushrooms, from the prized Lingzhi mushroom of Chinese Medicine to the powerful healer called Agarikon, identified by Ancient Greek doctor Dioscorides.   Paul Stamets intriguingly points out a reason why: in humans, our stomachs are on the inside, and secrete compounds and enzymes to help us digest and use nutrients. The “stomach” of mycelium is on the outside, in the soil where they lay.  Over 650 million years of evolution, Mycelium and its diverse fruiting bodies have adapted to release compounds that keep away harmful bacteria and toxins, allowing them to digest the soil in peace and health.  Their adaptation is a treasure that provides us with mushrooms like Turkey Tail, which has been shown to have strong anti-cancer properties, or Cordyceps, which aids in circulation and heart health. 

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just humans who benefit from mushrooms.  Research is still ongoing, but it has been observed that Bees also use certain kinds of mushrooms to stay healthy.  In a strong, undisturbed old-growth ecosystem, mushrooms flourish in many places, as do bees. Currently, Bees are under attack from pesticides, mites, and viruses that, if unchecked, could end up spelling doom for our entire agricultural system.  Stamets noticed that Bees seemed to love to congregate on certain kinds of low-to-the ground mushrooms, and on further research found that the protective, anti-microbial compounds in mushrooms spelled better health for the bees.  He is formulating a “Mycelial Honey” that Bees can eat and share with their hive, thus assisting their survival in this toxic modern world!  In Science, it is always assumed that there is more “under the surface” of phenomena we see, and mushrooms and Mycelium are an excellent example of the bustling, vibrant life that happens right under our feet.

And with so many varieties of mushrooms, we thought it would be fun to capture prints of various mushrooms to examine and compare their “footprint”. Take a look at our Fungi Prints at-home experiment and see if you recognize any of the fungus among us! Lesson plan and tutorial video links below:

Lesson Plan:
https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/Fungi-Prints-Experiment.pdf

Tutorial Video:
https://youtu.be/xxlRswPbgCs

Sources:

Paul Stamets TED Talk:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5frPV58tY

How Fungi Changed My View of the World, a documentary by Stephen Axford: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYunPJQWZ1o

Medical Research into Cancer and Mushrooms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn7wLIm1SJA

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