Mycelium: Is there anything it can't do?
February 12, 2020 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Soil's Microbial Market Shows the Ruthless Side of Forests - "In the 'underground economy' for soil nutrients, fungi strike hard bargains and punish plants that won't meet their price." (via)
Beneath the green vegetable world we see is a dark microbial world we don’t. The crops we eat, the forests that sustain us and most other life forms, even the regulation of Earth’s climate — all benefit from a shadowy network of fungi and bacteria that mobilize soil nutrients and trade them with plants for sugars and fats. And yet the workings of this subterranean society are almost unknown to scientists. For example, researchers just mapped for the first time the global distribution of three major groups of these microbes. Even in 2019, what lies beneath our feet remains a true scientific frontier.

Despite this epistemological murkiness, public interest in the underground ecosystem has exploded. TED talks and bestselling books extol the benevolent, cooperative “wood wide web” of subsurface organisms that communicate, share nutrients and sustain each other.

Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at VU University Amsterdam, is at the vanguard of a new generation of scientists questioning that gauzy view. Through innovative and groundbreaking studies, Kiers and her collaborators have gathered evidence that plants and their fungal conspirators are not just cooperating with each other but also engaging in a raucous and often cutthroat marketplace ruled by supply and demand, where everyone is out to get the best deal for themselves and their kind.

Key to this picture is the revelation that the unseen underground world is just as complex, sophisticated and purposeful as the visible aboveground world we inhabit. Microbes are not simple, passive accessories to plants, but dynamic, powerful actors in their own right. Fungi can hoard nutrients, they can reward plants that are generous with their carbon reserves and punish ones that are stingy, and they can deftly move and trade resources to get the best “deal” for themselves in exchange.

Those are probably just the beginning of their talents. In a paper published in June, Kiers and her colleagues pioneered a method to illuminate the fungal marketplace in action — to make the invisible visible. The tantalizing research hints at a capability that has been suspected but never proved: that fungi might not be just nutrient traders but also sophisticated information processors.
Towards fungal computer - "We propose that fungi Basidiomycetes can be used as computing devices: information is represented by spikes of electrical activity, a computation is implemented in a mycelium network and an interface is realized via fruit bodies. In a series of scoping experiments, we demonstrate that electrical activity recorded on fruits might act as a reliable indicator of the fungi’s response to thermal and chemical stimulation. A stimulation of a fruit is reflected in changes of electrical activity of other fruits of a cluster, i.e. there is distant information transfer between fungal fruit bodies. In an automaton model of a fungal computer, we show how to implement computation with fungi and demonstrate that a structure of logical functions computed is determined by mycelium geometry." (via)
The fungi are the largest, widely distributed and oldest group of living organisms [1]. The smallest fungi are microscopic single cells. The largest mycelium belongs to Armillaria bulbosa, which occupies 15 hectares and weights 10 tons [2], and the largest fruit body belongs to Fomitiporia ellipsoidea, which at 20 years old is 11 m long, 80 cm wide, 5 cm thick and has an estimated weight of nearly half-a-ton [3]. During the last decade, we produced nearly 40 prototypes of sensing and computing devices from the slime mould Physarum polycephalum [4], including the shortest path finders, computational geometry processors, hybrid electronic devices, see the compilation of the latest results in [5].

We found that the slime mould is a convenient substrate for unconventional computing; however, the geometry of the slime mould’s protoplasmic networks is continuously changing, thus preventing fabrication of long-living devices, and slime mould computing devices are confined to experimental laboratory set-ups. Fungi Basidiomycetes are now taxonomically distinct from the slime mould; however, their development and behaviour are phenomenologically similar: mycelium networks are analogous to the slime mould’s protoplasmic networks, and the fruit bodies are analogous to the slime mould’s stalks of sporangia. Basidiomycetes are less susceptible to infections; when cultured indoors, especially commercially available species, they are larger in size and more convenient to manipulate than slime mould, and they could be easily found and experimented on outdoors. This makes the fungi an ideal object for developing future living computing devices.

Advancing our recent results on electrical signalling in fungi [6], which in a way is similar to electrical signalling in plants [7], we are exploring the computing potential of fungi in the present paper. We introduce a mycelium basis of fungal computing and define an architecture of fungal computers in §2. Findings on the electrical activity of fungi [6,8,9] are augmented in §3 by demonstrations of endogenous spiking, signalling between fruit bodies and signalling by fruit bodies about the state of the growth substrate. In experiments, we use oyster mushrooms, species pleurotus, family Tricholomataceae, because of their wide availability and interesting properties [1012]. We imitate electrical activity of the mycelium in a discrete model in §4. There we encode logical values into presence/absence of spikes in fruit bodies and show how logical functions can be executed. We also demonstrate that a geometrical structure of mycelium, in the model this is represented by a random planar set structure, affects families of logical circuits computed. Directions of future research on fungal computing are outlined in §5.
NASA says astronauts on the moon and Mars may grow their homes there out of mushrooms - "Astronauts could bring a much more compact habitat made from lightweight materials embedded with fungi. These could survive long-term spaceflight and once the habitat was placed on the surface, all the astronauts would need to do is activate the fungi by adding water." (via)
“Mycelial materials, already commercially produced, are known insulators, fire retardant, and do not produce toxic gasses,” according to the project description. “Metrics for these materials show compression strengths superior to dimensional lumber, flexural strength superior to reinforced concrete, and competitive insulation values.” Mycelia could also be used to provide bioluminescent lighting, filter water, extract minerals, regulate humidity and even repair itself.
8 Startups Using Fungi for Innovative Applications - "The humble mushroom might be just what we need to solve many of the world's problems. Here are eight startups using fungi for innovative applications." (via)
One person who is passionate about finding new sources of protein is Olivia Fox Cabane, someone whose accomplishments include things like obtaining “three master’s degrees in Business Law” or being “the youngest person ever to have been appointed Foreign Trade Advisor to the French Government.” These days, she’s left all that stuff behind to pursue the thing she’s most passionate about – climate sustainability work. In response to one of our pieces on alternative proteins, she asked if we’d consider doing a piece on the fungi industry – or as she put it – “a kingdom of species with infinite possibilities for clean meat scaffolding.”

[The Fungi Industry Landscape (newprotein.org/maps)]
Blood Spore: Of murder and mushrooms - "In July 2011, on the hottest day of the year, I received a fragile-looking Maxell compact cassette from a retired psychology professor and gerbil-aggression researcher named Gary Davis. I had been told the cassette contained a recording of two police officers discussing their involvement in the robbery and murder of one Steven Pollock, a physician and pioneering mycologist who — despite invaluable contributions to the field, including an improved technique for growing psychedelic mushrooms on Purina Dog Chow — remains largely unknown." (via)
Carefully labeled police crook 6/17/81, the cassette had for thirty years been stored in a toolbox under two dozen inoperative WWII-era Geiger counters in Davis’s mother’s house. I had offered to pay for the tape but Davis refused, insisting he just wanted it to be heard by as many people as possible, then backtracking and suggesting he wouldn’t mind terribly if I sent him twenty dollars for beer. I was worried about the tape’s integrity and had been reading anxiously about the myriad problems that befall aging magnetic media — binder embrittlement, remanence reduction, even fungal contamination — and the transaction was further charged by a stern warning from another source: “This information should be treated with due caution. Some of these cops, if still living, could be very dangerous.”

The warning was delivered by Paul Stamets, who had told me about the tape but never actually heard it. Once a friend of Pollock’s, Stamets has in recent decades become recognized as the foremost authority on medicinal mushrooms: a taxonomist, author, cultivator extraordinaire, and general fungal hype-man, Stamets travels the country giving lectures on the different ways mushrooms can save both the planet and the human race. It was at one of these lectures, titled “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” that I first had the opportunity to question Stamets in person about the story of the tape. In a sold-out room with theatrically dimmed lights, Stamets begins by opening a specially designed carrying case and removing a large, concentrically banded cylindrical fungus, which he then hoists above his head. “This is agarikon,” he declares with Mosaic solemnity, “and it will prove to be as important for the survival of the human race as the discovery of fire.” In agarikon, which really looks very much like an unfrosted layer cake, Stamets has detected potent antimicrobial compounds that he predicts will protect us from intercontinental viral storms destined to sweep the globe. He tells the audience of how he cured himself of a stammer with Psilocybe, treated his mother’s breast cancer with Trametes, saved his aunt’s home from carpenter-ant infestation with Metarhizium, and how mycelium — the filamentous network that absorbs nutrients into the fungus — is both earth’s brain and the Internet’s natural progenitor. He does all this wearing a hat made of mushrooms.

Listening to Stamets speak about fungi I think this must be what it was like to listen to Thomas Edison talk about incandescence, the research so deliriously ambitious and diverse that it seems to teeter on the brink of insanity but, perhaps by virtue of its grounding in clinical studies and scientific publications, doesn’t leave one feeling to be in the presence of a mountebank — somehow quite the opposite — and when Stamets utters his concluding remarks he is rewarded by a rabid standing ovation. The audience wastes no time in swarming the stage in hopes that Stamets will be able to help them find fungal succor for their human woes, and I am, of course, no different. A man begins, in a somewhat accusatory tone, to inquire as to why his black-morel kit did not bear fruit, to which Stamets reminds him there are no guarantees of fruition, offers a diplomatic handshake, and turns to the next person in line, which is me. I am hesitant to bring up the subject of Pollock in public, but the press of mycophiles on either side of me leaves me no choice. I tell Stamets I have obtained the Pollock tape and I think I can solve the murder, in response to which his face changes. “You know, Steve was assassinated by the police,” he says, suddenly unaware of his surroundings. The dissatisfied morel-kit customer takes a step backward toward the door.
Mental health/psychedelic drugs: shroom for improvement - "Brain-altering drugs are showing promise but bad publicity could provoke a backlash."
Time for a change of mind? Drugs like magic mushrooms and ecstasy are widely banned. But brain-altering drugs are showing promise in treating intractable mental health problems.

Last year, a treatment derived from party drug ketamine became the first new type of antidepressant to be approved in decades. London’s Imperial College and Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins opened psychedelic research centres, a sign that the subject is edging into the mainstream.

Last month a magic mushroom medicine passed its first clinical safety trial. Key ingredient psilocybin appears to “reboot” the brain by stimulating the serotonin system. It might help treat depression, opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anorexia.
Inside the Campaign to Legalize Magic Mushrooms in California - "A ballot measure would create a regulatory framework for recreational sales." (yt; previously)
On May 7, 2019, Denver voted to become the first city in America to decriminalize magic mushrooms. On June 4, 2019, Oakland, California, decriminalized all psychedelic plants and fungi. On January 28, 2020, the neighboring Bay Area city of Santa Cruz followed suit. And now statewide efforts are underway in Washington state, Oregon, and California.
posted by kliuless (12 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
I for one welcome our Mushroom overlords.
posted by sammyo at 7:05 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]


We propose that fungi Basidiomycetes can be used as computing devices: information is represented by spikes of electrical activity, a computation is implemented in a mycelium network and an interface is realized via fruit bodies.

Lady Deirdre Skye, is that you?
posted by tavella at 8:19 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


Paul Stamets is the name the writers used for the guy in Star Trek Discovery, who works with the fungal spores to space travel. I guess that wasn't an accident. He is played by Anthony Rapp.
posted by Oyéah at 8:54 AM on February 12 [11 favorites]


This is from last year, and the group (Open Insulin Project) is still going. Fascinating and important work trying to use yeast to produce insulin. Biohackers With Diabetes Are Making Their Own Insulin
posted by SonInLawOfSam at 9:48 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Relevant Tumblr post: you cannot kill me in a way that matters
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:31 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


I want to congratulate you on constructing an absolutely glorious post, and also recommend that long but excellent Harper's piece you linked above (Blood Spore.) That's some terrific writing!
posted by biddeford at 11:01 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Well fed ag soil fungi and microbials keep us well fed and alive!
posted by Mesaverdian at 1:50 PM on February 12


Holy moly, that Harper’s article... what a crazy story. Thanks!
posted by rp at 8:16 PM on February 12


A wonderful stimulating post kliuless - We're only scratching the surface (what's the ground version of the sky's the limit?) with what fungi can do for us, what about self-healing of concrete cracks. There are methods in the pipeline for repairs to existing concrete as well as crack repair as part of the mix.

I've just found this too Fungal permeable reactive barrier to remediate groundwater which I've been looking for for weeks as I thought it had to be a thing on the near-future horizon as I have uses for it. Essentially this has the potential to be a class of self-weaving natural geotextiles. This is leading to waste plume containment among other applications.
posted by unearthed at 11:04 PM on February 12


Move over, kale: Mushrooms are the new grocery aisle celebrities - "Monthly US mushroom production has surged to an all-time high, according to industry trade group American Mushroom Institute." :P
Mushrooms are packed with vitamins and minerals. "They are fat-free, low calorie, low sodium, gluten free," said Harrison. "They are versatile, you can eat them cooked or raw, and they fit any healthy eating plan you have for breakfast, lunch or dinner."

Although button mushrooms remain the most commonly consumed variety, Harrison said demand is picking up for specialty varieties, such as shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms.
posted by kliuless at 6:26 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


We propose that fungi Basidiomycetes can be used as computing devices: information is represented by spikes of electrical activity, a computation is implemented in a mycelium network and an interface is realized via fruit bodies.

I know this game this is Dwarf Fortress
posted by away for regrooving at 11:11 PM on February 13


Chernobyl Fungi Eats Radiation - "Researchers eventually realized that not only was the fungi impervious to the deadly radiation, it seemed to be attracted to it... it reportedly absorbed radiation and converted it into some type of chemical energy for growth." :P
posted by kliuless at 4:56 PM on February 14


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