Fungi are surprisingly compelling

On the basis of a recommendation from a friend of mine who works on environmentally-friendly gardening and landscaping in North Vancouver, I am reading Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running: a book that details ways in which human beings can achieve ecological outcomes through the intelligent use of fungus. They can be used to increase the rate of forest recovery after logging, clean up contaminated sites, and so forth. I will post a review of the whole book when I finish it.

One aspect of the book I found surprising and interesting are the ways in which the similarities of animals and fungi are emphasized. Both ecologically and genetically, the two are apparently more closely linked than any other two kingdoms. Both breathe oxygen (fungi can be suffocated), both sometimes attack and kill plants or animals. Representatives of both kingdoms sustain themselves on dead organic matter, while others live inside other live organisms and extract nutrition from them parasitically.

Some species of animals extrude their digestive organs when eating. Fungi might be considered an extreme elaboration of this. Instead of having a stomach inside the body, filled with digestive enzymes, the mycelium leaches them out into surrounding matter, then draws in the liberated and partially processed nutrients therein.

In any case, fungi are quite fascinating. For one final example, consider the genus Pleurotus. While their culinary properties are their major claim to fame, their ability to metabolize crude oil is also rather remarkable. You can start with a bucket of crude spilled on a beach somewhere, introduce some spores, and eventually wind up with material that is entirely safe for the natural environment in general.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Fungi are surprisingly compelling”

  1. Fascinating things for sure. I found the chapter in the Omnivore’s Dilemma quite interesting, but now I feel less inclined to want to eat them. They remind me of meat and also smell like it.

  2. Fungi Perfecti is a family-owned, environmentally friendly company specializing in using gourmet and medicinal mushrooms to improve the health of the planet and its people. Founded by mycologist and author Paul Stamets, we are leaders in a new wave of technologies harnessing the inherent power of mushrooms and fungal mycelium worldwide. Fungi Perfecti is Certified Organic by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. In business since 1980, we offer an ever-expanding product line for the mushroom enthusiast.

  3. Does it mention if you could eat mushrooms that had been metabolizing crude oil?

    That’s really remarkable.

  4. The breakdown of petroleum by oyster mushrooms apparently produces mostly mushrooms, carbon dioxide, and water. One trial found that they reduced the total petroleum hydrocarbons in an area from 20,000 parts per million to under 200 ppm in eight weeks.

    If you fed them pure oil, they may well be safe to eat. Used in contaminated sites, they would be likely to contain other toxins, such as heavy metals or persistent organic pollutants.

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