Fungi are living organisms that support the ecosystem of the entire planet. Most people associate mushrooms with fungi, but in reality, mushrooms merely make up the ‘flower’ portion of some species of fungi. Up to 90% of the fungi associated with the mushroom is underground as part of a web called mycelium. Scientists are continually discovering ways fungi enhance the circle of life. The mushroom and mycelium components of fungi are currently a hot topic in the research world, because there are already over 100,000 identified varieties with thousands more being discovered annually. Together, these fungi species are unlocking solutions for cleaning up the environment, developing greener construction and product materials and contributing significant medicinal benefits.

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What are fungi?

Fungi are basically the digestive tract of the planet. As a carbon-based substance, fungi work in conjunction with all living or decaying things. Whether that is a tree that has fallen in the woods or an animal that dies along the side of the road, mycelium works below-ground to facilitate decomposition. Mycelium is a massive filter that removes toxins from the soil, improving water quality as a result.

Related: How fungi made Earth’s atmosphere livable

This network also cycles nutrients from one location to another, essentially transporting food and water from one plant to another. It’s also believed they send messages throughout the forest that support the success of other fungi as well as overall plant life.

In scientific papers reviewed as recently as two months ago, evidence has come to light indicating fungal fossils may date back at least 715 to 810 million years and possibly even over one billion years ago. Whether that can be proven or not, most scientists accept that fungi have survived on the planet since at least 400 million years ago. Further, researchers give credit to fungi for their critical role in facilitating the continued existence of the planet.

bright orange mushrooms growing through soil

Fungi and climate change

In addition to supporting the entire plant kingdom, fungi are recognized as a promising weapon in the fight against climate change. While some of these discoveries happen in a lab, others are happening in nature as we go about our daily lives. As outlined in a new documentary, Fantastic Fungi, fungi are indiscriminate in their consumption of organic material. As an example of this cycle, fungi can break down carbon-based diesel oil, growing mushrooms in its wake. Then birds, bees and bugs feed, spread seeds and pollinate as a result, supporting more than just the surrounding area. In fact, many scientists believe mushrooms might be one solution to ending the crisis bees are facing, because mushrooms’ antiviral characteristics may offer protection from damaging chemicals in other plants.

Fungi can likely clean up other aspects of the environment, too. According to the State of the World’s Fungi 2018 report, the mushroom Aspergillus tubingensis has the ability to grow directly on the surface of plastic and has properties that actually deteriorate the material. Yes, apparently some mushrooms can eat plastic.

Even more amazing is the discovery that fungi were found consuming radiation off the walls of the abandoned Chernobyl plant. In fact, three species were found to be absorbing the radiation and turning it into energy for growth. In essence, they were feeding off radiation.

Mushroom waste becomes biofuel

Natural waste from mushroom production can also be converted into biofuel. According to research published in Science Advances, the research team revealed that a naturally occurring bacterium called Thermoanaerobacterium thermosaccharolyticum (TG57), isolated from waste generated after harvesting mushrooms, is capable of directly converting cellulose (a plant-based material) to biobutanol, leading to a much cleaner way to produce biofuel and reduce emissions from fossil fuels.

mushrooms growing on a fallen log in a forest

Products made from fungi

Product manufacturers are also looking toward fungi in material development due to properties that allow them to naturally decompose at the end of their life cycle. Fungi are being used as a substitute for environmental nemesis polystyrene foam, animal leather and chemical-laden building materials. One company, Coeio, has even created a mushroom-infused burial suit, explaining that a human body will break down faster and give back to the Earth sooner while the fungal properties filter out any toxic chemicals the body has acquired while living.

Fungi for health

Fungi are also in the spotlight for exciting medical advancements, such as treating anxiety and depression with psilocybin. Fungi could also help fight against cognitive decline, according to a recent study.

Plus, fungi are already part of our everyday life in ways you may not even recognize. In addition to the mushrooms on your pizza, fungi are important for fermentation, which creates alcohol, leavened bread and much more.

The list of possible ways fungi are saving our planet is nearly as long as the list of species themselves. With an increasing interest in research, the possibilities for finding innovative ways to use fungi in the future are exciting and promising.

Images via Pixabay