Citizen Science, Mushroom Edition


Photo: Johan Hansson/Creative Commons Attribution

We have a mycological leaning on this platform, which started due to Milo’s interest, which was infectious.  So, our news filters pick up stories like this; normally I avoid sharing the stories involving hallucinogens, though I read the serious ones myself. I do not expect stories like this one below from New York Magazine, so this was a pleasant surprise:

Meet the Citizen Scientists Who Think Mushrooms Have Superpowers


Last month, around 2,500 people with some connection to hallucinogenic drugs gathered at the Oakland Marriott City Center in Oakland, California for what might best be described as the psychedelics state of the union. Psychedelic Science 2017, as it was more formally known, drew professionals of all stripes: chemists who make the hallucinogens, neuroscientists who study their effects on the brain, therapists who discuss their after-effects on patients, shamans and healers who administer the drugs, and anthropologists like Joanna Steinhardt, who are trying to make sense of the meaning of psychedelic culture.

At the conference, Steinhardt, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, delivered a talk describing her research on a specific subset of amateur scientists within this world: DIY mycologists. Some of these mushroom enthusiasts who grow their fungi at home use them in recipes, or to make medicinal tinctures. But others get more creative, using them for citizen-science projects like myco-remediation (cleaning environmental toxins with fungi), myco-forestry (using mushrooms to maintain forest health), and doing DNA analysis on mushrooms to determine local strains.

It’s a good time to be a magic-mushroom fan. In the 1960s, hallucinogens like LSD were used by therapists to successfully treat patients with a range of mental conditions, a line of treatment that was ended with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. But now, after years of research and advances in brain imaging, hallucinogens are being taken seriously again. Recent research has shown that psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, can reduce anxiety in end-of-life cancer patients. The mushrooms are currently classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they are thought to have no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. Nevertheless, advocates believe the opposite: that they are indeed medicinal, and not at all addictive. They also believe that they have the potential to become legalized therapeutic medicines within the next decade.

But many members of the DIY mycology community, which has emerged in the last decade or so, are more interested in the other things that mushrooms can do. The movement is based in part on the work of Paul Stamets, whose book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World posits that mushrooms can, well, save the world. He argues that mycelium, the fine web of cells that branch out from the fruiting part of the mushroom and act sort of like the fungus’s nervous system and stomach, can break down and digest oil, plastic, and other toxic waste materials. As Vice noted in a 2015 profile, Stamet’s also found that some mushrooms contain compounds that can be used against certain viruses and bacteria, including E. coli, influenza, and smallpox, a finding that’s attracted the attention of scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Stamets, who is seen as somewhat of an evangelist for the fungal kingdom, also spoke at the conference, announcing that he hopes to one day create a psilocybin vitamin, a proclamation that was met with wild cheers from the crowd of mushroom-lovers.

Because the world of professional mycology is so small, many amateur mycologists feel their contributions to the understudied world of fungi can be of great use to the scientific community — according to Steinhardt, only about 5 percent of the world’s mushrooms are thought to have been identified. “Mycology is a world where the amateurs are really important,” she says. “They become obsessive hobbyists and can become experts themselves.”

Several of them also hope to turn their hobbies into scientific breakthroughs, she says…

Read the whole story here.

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