The magic of mushrooms could save our planet

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There’s a reason why toadstools have featured in fairytales for centuries: mushrooms really are magical organisms. Admittedly, they probably won’t do much for your mystical potions, but their sheer versatility borders on supernatural – and we are are only just beginning to discover the extent of their practical potential.

Though the most obvious use for mushrooms is as part of a healthy diet, there is evidence that they could be induced for medical reasons, too. Even the most unlikely form to be recommended by your doctor, the hallucinogenic “magic mushroom”, contains a substance that according to a pioneering trial could have possible mental health benefits. Psilocybin – which occurs naturally in around 200 varieties of mushroom – may, in small amounts, prove useful in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

Mushrooms may be largely grey, but they are also incredibly green. Edible varieties have long been a preferred option for vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians, packed with protein and flavour, and with this year’s record Veganuary numbers, it’s clear they are making an impact. But the environmental benefits of plant-based products aren’t limited to what we put inside our bodies: they also extend to what we wear. Since the invention of vegan leather, the world of fashion has been revolutionised by eco-friendly alternatives. Adidas just launched their first pair of plant-based shoes, making them the lastest big brand to catch onto the trend.

While mushrooms may not seem sturdy enough to survive daily wear and tear, underneath the soft edible heads lies an extraordinary network of digestive filaments called the mycelial network, which can be compacted into a lightweight, biodegradable material. This material is also being used for fungal architecture, to build and furnish homes for a more sustainable construction industry. While the word fungal not bring to mind the most appealing image (and indeed, these products are not necessarily the most glamorous), this new direction enables organic materials to be optimally recycled.

Mushrooms don’t only reduce what we put into landfill: amazingly, it has been discovered that in certain cases, they actively consume harmful products, effectively cleaning up the planet. A particular species of fungus hailing from the Amazon were found feeding on tough polyurethane plastic, while in other cases they have been known to soak up toxic heavy metals and even radioactive waste.

However, mushrooms can also create toxins, and this gives them the potential to help get rid of other harmful pests. The fungus Metarhizium Pingshaense, which produces a toxin based on spider venom, has been tested as a way of killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and in and enclosed trial wiped out 99 per cent of the insects. Lab experiments have led to many more potential uses, even in the technological sector. For example, according to a report made back in 2015, in the right conditions mushrooms – which contain cyanobacteria, a producer of electricity – could perform as a kind of organic rechargeable battery. Who knows, perhaps one day our phones will be running on fungi.

In a fictional future, mushrooms are quite literally saving the planet. Netflix spinoff series Star Trek: Discovery follows a team of intrepid space explorers aboard a science vessel as they seek out new knowledge and boldly go where no crew has gone before. Among their interdimensional discoveries is a way to harness the mycelial network to create a Displacement Activated Spore Drive (DASH), enabling them to travel instantaneously anywhere in the universe. Is this form of space travel any more than a flight of fancy? No. Is it a remarkably inventive way to pay homage to the wonders of fungi? Undoubtedly – and it’s a lot of fun, too.

Mushrooms have inspired every sector, from food and healthcare to construction, waste, technology and even entertainment. Their power continues to amaze and influence new advancements, and it’s becoming more and more plausible that one day their reach will extend throughout the galaxy, though probably not in the ways we imagined.

Rosamund Kelby

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