As of recently there have been a lot of articles and news stories about how our environment is being destroyed bit by bit and there haven’t been very many suggestions for how to reverse the damage. However, there exists, right under our noses in the mushroom community a way to help save the environment. This process is called Mycorestoration and it is essentially the process of using mushrooms and other fungi to strengthen the immune system of the environment, repair damage, and restore areas that have sustained significant barrage.
Like people and animals, the environment has an immune system and either through human intervention like deforestation, waste dumping, or excessive mining or through environmental catastrophes such as forest fires or hurricanes that immune system can take a hit. The environment has the ability to take care of itself and without the human race, it would thrive like it is supposed to but with all the damage we are doing, we are removing the environment’s ability to take care of itself. So other than actively trying to slow down the damage by lessening or stopping what we have been doing? The answer is introducing fungi to create a nutrient rich environment that can support life again.
The specific ways that this can be accomplished are through; mycofiltration to filter water, mycoforestry to restore ecosystems, mycoremediation to break down toxic waste, and mycopesticides to control pests that may be detrimental to the environment. At a certain level the environment already does this by itself, mushrooms and fungi have been having these positive effects on the environment for centuries already, however with human intervention the damage has gotten worse and the environment requires a little bit of help.
The farming industry is full of pesticides of all kinds; insecticides, fungicides, bactericides, and more. A lesser known fact is that just because a crop is “organic” doesn’t mean it doesn’t use pesticides, that just means that it doesn’t use certain chemical pesticides. These pesticides have been problematic for nearly as long as they have been in use; not only are we spraying chemicals onto the things that we are going to ingest but it can also have a negative effect on biodiversity by killing insects and organisms that it wasn’t intended to. This can have a negative effect on the environment as a whole.
There was an article that came out in 2004 that announced that 15 to 37 percent of the current species on the planet could die out by 2050. Pesticides are a large part of that; many of the chemicals used in pesticides, as mentioned above, can harm humans who ingest them, kill unintended species, and contaminate water which is bad for both humans and other animal species living in and drinking the water.
However, in the 1800s research started to be done on the use of mushrooms and fungi as a pesticide, or mycopesticides. This research continued through the 1900s and up to present day; the interaction between fungi and insects is not very well understood but research has shown that there are fungi and mushrooms that act as pesticides in nature that might be able to be applied to farming.
There is one genus in particular that houses a majority of these mycopesticides mushrooms, and that is Cordyceps. These fungi can present as a mold or a mushroom and will grow out of the dead carcass of insects. One species in particular, the Cordyceps Iloydii, infects carpenter ants in particular and compels them to climb to the top of the trees in the forest it inhabits, clamp onto a leaf and die. The mushroom will then sprout out of the top of the ant’s head and spread its spores in that way. With this particular fungus, it can deter pests in multiple ways given the way it works; one of the ways is to infect the insects so they die, and the other way is that once a nest of carpenter ants realized that this fungus is nearby, they will actually move their nest away to a different location to protect the queen and the rest of the colony. Either way would be effective for farming because in one scenario the pests die and in the other scenario, the pests run away and go somewhere else.
Significant research has gone into the idea of mycopesticides since its beginning and the EPA is encouraging more research on one particular fungus that may be very effective as a biopesticide. The Metarhizium anisopliae, is a fungus that could act as a pesticide toward pests but does not infect plants, mammals, fish, bees, or other beneficial insects.
The field of mycopesticides could be an amazing future use for mushrooms to help the environment by:
- Replacing toxic pesticides with something more natural.
- Lessening the risk of groundwater and water habitat contamination.
- Allowing the mushrooms to evolve alongside the pests so the pests don’t become stronger than the pesticide.
- Preventing tolerance build up among pests.
- Creating a long-term protection, since mushrooms don’t need to be re-applied once every couple of weeks.
- Saving biodiversity.
In reality, we should be looking to the environment for ways to help our planet. The environment did perfectly fine before us and will continue to do great when we are long gone. We as a society need to get over the knee jerk negative reaction that we have when “fungus” or “mushroom” is mentioned and learn to use them. The field of mycology has grown significantly over the past couple decades and is continuing to grow. In the future, fungi and mushrooms particularly are going to play a large role in our ability as the human race to address major global problems, the changing of our climate, counteracting disease and antibiotic resistance, strengthening crops to survive the changes our climate has gone through already, and potentially even producing new drugs that could cure diseases. The range of uses for mushrooms is expanding and we have mycology to thank for that.
Author: Chelsea Hoel
Chelsea Hoel is a freelance blogger, content creator, and investigative journalist with a Bachelors of Science (Plant Science) from the University of Arizona.