Editor’s Notebook, Regulars and Shorts

Editor’s Notebook: Mushrooms Will Save the Day

By Greta Belanger deJong

Nothing is so full of life and death as a mushroom.

Through its ability to consume and feed, mycelium, the weblike structure from which a mushroom grows, may hold the key to sustaining life on Earth.

Last month I attended Shroomfest 31: A Celebration of All Things Fungal and Entheogenic in Telluride, Colorado. About 200 mycophiles from around the country spent four days at the city’s high school, library and county meeting room. I don’t have the scientific background that would enable me to retain much of the technical information. It didn’t matter. I was absorbing the words as if they were painted with a wide brush on my skin. Hmm. That sounds a bit… psychedelic. But I think it’s an accurate description. (I did take a lot of notes, which are coming in handy right now.)

Mycologist Paul Stamets is my idea of an Earth Angel. If this planet has a future, you can bet he’s wrapped up in it. If you ever have a chance to hear him speak, jump at the opportunity. He’s both visionary and pragmatic. Paul has pioneered the use of mushrooms for remediating environmental toxins and filtering polluted waterways; for remediating radiation and chemo and cleaning up the original cancer; as natural insecticides; for replacing plastic in many categories; and he recognizes their sacred nature. In fact, he is very open about his belief that the ecosystem is conscious, and that the mycelial networks are a means of communication.

(Actually, you will have an opportunity to hear him speak: He is presenting at October’s Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California. His talks will be replayed at our re­gional conference at West­minster College here in Salt Lake City a few weeks later: www.westminstercollege.edu/bioneers)

Besides talks and demonstrations, there were field forays, a show-and-tell (or -ask) tent for the fungal finds, a cook-off, and a parade.

Art Goodtimes, a founder of the festival, presided. Art is a wonderful poet as well as the commissioner for San Miguel County. He is a world-class skillful communicator, as one might imagine. This allows him to get away with looking just like his nickname, Shroompa. Visit him and learn more about the festival here: www.shroomfest.com

Bioremediation with mushrooms is called mycoremediation. Mycelium of certain types of mushrooms, it’s turning out, also eats petroleum. Danny Newman and Lindsay Ofrias-Terranova of the Amazon Mycore­newal Project told us about the “petro-tolerant” mushrooms being field-tested in Ecuador in attempt to remediate a site where Texaco and other oil companies have been dumping oil waste since the 1960s. Three thousand miles of forest have been lost, putting five groups of indigenous peoples on the brink of extinction. The contamination has cost them their viable land. They now purchase foods they had previously grown for themselves. This area has the highest level of malnutrition in South America.

In their talk it became obvious that in addition to weather, the political climate is important in growing such a project. So far it’s proving more challenging than Mother Nature to deal with. To learn more about this: www.amazonmycorenewal.org

In mycoremediation, the trick is to find the right fungus for a specific pollutant. Certain oyster mushrooms are the choice with petroleum, breaking it down to water and carbon dioxide. Paul Stamets reports having successfully degraded the nerve gases VX and sarin with certain mushrooms. And in July, a scientific journal published research from a group of Yale students regarding a fungus found in Ecuador that actually eats plastic. This may be very big. (“Biodegra­da­tion of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi,” in Applied And Environmental Microbiology, online, in case you’re really interested. I’ve added the myco-movie “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” to my Netflix list instead.)

Last month I mentioned that I was attending the mushroom conference in lieu of going to the Burning Man in the Nevada desert this month. But surprises happen, and now I must go pack.

Greta Belanger deJong is the editor and publisher of CATALYST.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2011.