May 30, 2004

Running off to join the mycologists

Last weekend I attended a beginning mushroom cultivation class at Fungi Perfecti. The company is run by Paul Stamets, an internationally known mycologist (a mycologist is someone who spends a not yet provably harmful amount of time studying fungi), and he was our teacher for most of the two day class. I didn't have time to write about it earlier in the week because it's getting close to finals, but today I was reminded of why it was important to talk about it.

Dave Pollard has two posts on the green architecture and natural capitalism philosophies that fired me up to share some of what I heard last weekend. Both are based on the simple principle that nature is a better designer than the cleverest human every day of the week. As my biology teacher keeps driving home to us, evolution is random, but natural selection is not. What works in the face of perpetual competition, lives. Many organisms and ecosystems have stood that test for millenia, but our system of organization (as the authors point out), is already on the brink of catastrophe.

If we're ever to correct this, we first need a better understanding of the problem. Once the problem is understood, it's clear that the threat to our own lives from our damage of ecosystems credibly deserves the title of 'imminent.' As Stamets says, the problem isn't that the sky is falling, but that our soil is failing.

A single teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microorganisms than there are vertebrates in N. America. Many of those microorganisms are nets of fungal mycelium, in along with nematodes, cyanobacteria, and hosts of other microscopic and single-celled creatures. The most beneficial of these, of course, tend to be highly sensitive to pesticides, fertilizers, or environmental pollutants. Even the ones that can withstand one of these assaults can usually be killed by another item in the witches' brew of toxics humans pump into the ground.

Some of the most important of these (after the cyanobacteria) are the stranded tissues of the higher classes of fungi, called mycelium. This is the group of fungi that produce mushrooms, or fruiting bodies, for reproduction. The mushroom itself is the tip of an iceberg of strands that reaches through the soil, through dead wood, and sometimes even living plant tissue.

The mycelial net performs irreplacable services for organisms, like us, that depend on healthy soil. They directly compete with bacteria, including strains like E. coli that can contaminate water supplies. They absorb water, holding it in soil so it's available to other living things and reducing runoff. And they're the prime enablers of most plant species, a function that natural habitats and ecosystems literally can't live without.

The mycelium producing species create 3 types of beneficial relationships with plants. Two are types of root relationship, called mycorrhizae. In one case, they penetrate the root cells of plants, bringing the plants nutrients and water in exchange for sugars. The second case is similar, except the mycelium only wraps around the walls of the plant's root cells. In the third type, the mycelium extends throughout the plant tissue, protecting it from other microorganisms and sometimes from larger predators. This last type, endophytes, were discovered when cocoa trees in S. America with 'blight' on their leaves were found to be healthier and more vigorous than others.

Other endophytic species have been discovered in certain grasses, producing a toxin that's harmless to the plant, but makes vertebrate grazers loopy, confused, and if they eat enough, sick. Endophytes also repel insect predators, which are significant plant pests. Yet one of their most superficially interesting abilities is to confer heat tolerance to grasses. A study indicated that the reason some grasses can grow right next to hot springs is because their endophytic symbiotes allow them to tolerate temperatures of up to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.

All forests depend heavily on these relationships, and declines of ecosystem health indicate that not only are known mushroom producing species going extinct, species are going extinct faster than they can be identified. And just as these ancient organisms face their biggest threat, we're beginning to learn that they're an amazing chemical and pharmaceutical resource in dealing with some of our biggest threats.

On the medical front, the pharmaceutical potential of mushroom species has been increasingly well received. As Stamets says, this is probably because doctors know where penicillin comes from. These are some current, and highly promising areas of medical research involving mushroom byproducts: antiviral treatment, LDL cholesterol reduction, antinflammatory and arthritis pain reduction, stimulation of stronger general immune response, vitamin D source, anti-cancer treatments, coagulants for wounds, and blood pressure reduction.

Some of these benefits have already been demonstrated, and others are in study. And these are just from the few species that scientists have really examined, which is only a handful.

In terms of other health threats we face, the contaminants that pose a hazard to biodiversity pose problems for us, as well. Certain mushroom strains have demonstrated a strong ability to combat these when put in the right place at the right time.

Human and animal wastes have been increasingly spilling into watersheds, causing contamination that sickens humans and animals that have to drink or live in it. In areas where farm waste or sewage runoff commonly overruns its bounds, the problem is persistent. But the garden giant mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata has shown itself to be efficient in combatting E. coli.

In a case at the Stamets property, neighboring shellfish farmers were in danger of being shut down due to persistend E. coli contamination, and were being constantly monitored. A patch of Stropharia seeded on the property reduced downstream E. coli contamination 2 log-fold in two years. They've since found that just adding wood chips inoculated with Stropharia to ravines helps reduce this specific bacteria.

Mushroom species that break down wood produce enzymes called lignin peroxidases, used for decomposing lignin. Lignin is the chemical that makes wood hard, and is unsurprisingly stable. The same enzymes that tear lignin apart can tear apart other persistent organic, or carbon based, contaminants. They can even take apart alkaloids like caffeine, which is becoming an increasing problem in watersheds in areas where coffee consumption is high.

The classic example is a study performed in Washington State at a site owned by the Department of Transportation. Ten tons of diesel fuel contaminated soil were inoculated with a ton of Oyster mushroom spawn. The soil started out black and smelling of aromatic hydrocarbons when the tarps were first put on. Four weeks later, thousands of Oyster mushrooms had sprung up and gotten huge on soil that had now been bleached blonde. Tests revealed that the soil had gone from 10,000 ppm of petrochemicals to less than 200 ppm, and would have been suitable for use in landscaping. The mushrooms tested clean.

It doesn't end there. In the 6 to 8 week timeframe, insects began eating the mature and dying mushrooms, and laying their eggs in them. Birds followed the insects, bringing seeds with them. In the 8 to 10 week timeframe, plants had begun establishing themselves on the berms of formerly lifeless soil.

If that wasn't enough, Oysters have also shown promise in preaking down VX and Sarin nerve gas, as well as the perchlorate rocket fuel chemicals that contaminate California's water supply. They can directly attack the stable phosphate bonds in VX, rendering the rest of the compound easy to digest if you're a mushroom.

These organisms are a treasure trove of beneficial compounds and helpful agricultural adjuncts. In any quest to heal the planet and ourselves, they could be powerful allies if we're wise enough to make use of them and protect their habitats.

Posted by natasha at May 30, 2004 08:08 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

What a wonderful article! If only all scientists were as aware of the crisis we are facing, and as articulate at explaining their root causes and some possible, natural solutions, as you are, Natasha.

You describe natural selection as a 'competitive' process. I'm coming to see it more as a process of 'superabundance reducing fragility' and hence strengthening the overall organism (Gaia). The millions of sperm swimming to the egg, and the thousands of blossoms that fall to the ground from a tree aren't 'competing', they're the Earth-Organism's way of strengthening its immune system. 'Human selection' has radically reduced the number of varieties of agricultural products in recent years, increasing vulnerability to epidemic disease and doubly increasing species extinction. It's a horrendously fragile system, as Avian Flu and Dutch Elm have shown.

Posted by: Dave Pollard at May 31, 2004 04:08 AM

Thank you, Dave. Probably many life scientists understand these things, but by the time you get to the point of having enough information about them, that knowledge seems both second nature and to some extent irreducible. I agree with your points, but an interesting thing about natural competition is that it's massively multiplayer, as well as redundant.

The most efficient hunting animals are the ones that hunt in packs. The hardiest plants are the ones that form partnerships with fungi or cyanobacteria, indeed, there would not be land plants without such partnerships. The dominant flowering plants mostly acheived that position by providing food for insects and/or animals through fruit or pollen. The sturdiest ecosystems are the ones with an abundance of species interacting together, not just the superabundance of a single species.

On a cellular level, the eukaryotic (non-bacterial cell with fixed organelles) cell started as a symbiosis of two bacterial cells. The cells in our body are individually weak and helpless, but in concert they create a formidably adaptable organism. Then on the largest level possible, multicellular organisms with their high energy requirements would not be possible without photosynthetic organisms maintaining our oxygen-rich atmosphere, which would 'naturally' resemble that of Venus.

The problem with our current thinking about organisms is that we think of them acting alone, with their fitness determined on an isolated and individual basis. But as it happens, survival of the fittest often means survival of the most cooperative. Symbiosis sounds like some exotic phenomenon, but it's the bedrock of all successful life. We have not learned to to see this cooperation, or to interpret things in the context of their relatedness. On this simple shift in perception, I believe, we will live or die as a species.

There is no alone, and there is no away. If we one day manage to go to other worlds, the only way to be successful will be to bring as much of the rich library of genetic material and organisms from our biosphere with us as possible. Which is to say that we aren't getting off this rock if we don't learn how to care well for the life that inhabits it. Our society is being run by a bunch of biotically illiterate morons who act as though sheer force of will could allow people to live on bare, airless rock.

Posted by: natasha at May 31, 2004 05:41 AM

Interestingly, I've been doing some research today for a post on the condition called 'synesthesia', the hearing of color/seeing of sound etc, similar to what is experienced under hallucinogenic influence.

Looking into this lead me to a thesis by Terence McKenna, essentially stating that early development of language was aided by the consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms (I know, it's a pretty big leap).

According to this theory, the synesthesia effects were useful to linguistic evolution. I probably fall into the skeptical camp on this, but thought it was sufficiently related to the subject to merit note.

Posted by: forgetting at May 31, 2004 10:52 AM