Paul Stamets. Credit: Trav Williams Broken Banjo Photography
In the media we scan for articles and podcasts to share here, some of the last year’s attention to fungi has been aimed at making them seem less alien by celebrating their very alien-ness. Up to now, this has all been earth-bound, but maybe that has been an arbitrary boundary. Thanks to Scientific American magazine for this conversation with the man who has been stretching fungi boundaries for much longer than we have been paying attention:
Mycologist Paul Stamets discusses the potential extraterrestrial uses of fungi, including terraforming planets, building human habitats—and providing psilocybin therapy to astronauts
The list of mycologists whose names are known beyond their fungal field is short, and at its apex is Paul Stamets. Educated in, and a longtime resident of, the mossy, moldy, mushy Pacific Northwest region, Stamets has made numerous contributions over the past several decades— perhaps the best summation of which can be found in his 2005 book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. But now he is looking beyond Earth to discover new ways that mushrooms can help with the exploration of space. Continue reading
Starting with Milo’s 2011 and 2012 posts, our attention to the wide-ranging topics related to fungi have been in the spirit of public service announcement. Scientific sometimes overlaps with culinary interest, and that intersection has motivated more than one post. Today, having noticed that this coffee-brewer on my desk looks inspired by the Pleurotus that just appeared on my screen, the motivation is aesthetic. Thanks to Helen Rosner, whose sense of wonder has pointed me to a publication that is likely already known by our fungi-focused friends, and well suited to broaden the appeal:
John Cage, the avant-garde composer, was also a passionate mushroom forager. In his 1954 essay “Music Lovers’ Field Companion,” he wrote about his habit of going into the woods and “conducting performances of my silent piece”—his most famous work, “4’33”,” in which ambient sounds are the only music—while attempting to identify nearby fungi. “The more you know them, the less sure you feel about identifying them,” Cage said, almost three decades later, in a conversation with the French musician Daniel Charles.
“Each one is itself. Each mushroom is what it is—its own center. It’s useless to pretend to know mushrooms. They escape your erudition.” I thought of Cage’s comments while paging through the third and most recent volume of “Mushrooms & Friends,” a photography zine by the artist Phyllis Ma. It is a mostly wordless publication, filled with Ma’s saturated, otherworldly images of mushrooms, many of which she gathers on foraging expeditions through the same upstate New York woods that enraptured Cage more than a half century ago.
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Thanks to Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield at the Guardian for this podcast episode about the wonders and perils of fungi-identifying:
…We often talk as if we know what species exist in the world – but we don’t. Continue reading
Michael Crowe holding the mushrooms he grew. Photograph: Mike Crowe/Stronz Vanderploeg
Growing edible fungi at home is easier than you might have thought:
Easy to grow, visually beautiful and oodles of fabulous fungi for breakfast, what’s not to love?
Michael Crowe with an abundance of homegrown mushrooms. Photograph: Stronz Vanderploeg
Selling home grown mushrooms – through bags small enough to sit on your kitchen countertop, filled with organic matter like grain or coffee grounds and inoculated with spores – has been Michael Crowe’s business since 2017. He enjoys hearing from happy customers, who sometimes send him updates on their progress. “It’s just so cool because it can bring together people of all ages, from all walks of life and people all over the place can grow food and have a really good time learning about it,” he says. Continue reading
Spores of the parasitic fungus Strongwellsea acerosa. Infected hosts continue to function for days. Photograph: Faculty of Science/University of Copenhagen
The image above, on its own, would be a mystery calling to be explained. Phoebe Weston has our attention again, this time with a story from the fungi universe:
Insect-destroying fungi ‘may represent the next frontier for drug discovery’
A fly infected with the fungus Strongwellsea tigrinae. Spores are discharged through a hole in the abdomen. Photograph: Faculty of Science/University of Copenhagen
Two new fungi species that infect flies and eject spores out of a large hole in the insect’s abdomen “like small rockets” have been discovered in Denmark.
The new species, Strongwellsea tigrinae and Strongwellsea acerosa, are host-specific and rely on two species of Danish fly – Coenosia tigrina and Coenosia testacea, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen. Continue reading
The Science section of the Guardian’s website has an article profiling an author and his new book (click above to find the book on the author’s website) that relate to a topic we care about as much as any we post about on this platform.
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) being home cultivated. Photograph: Gerry Bishop/Alamy
When Amie and Milo and I moved to Kerala, India in 2010 it was ostensibly for the sake of our client. But it was also for Milo. He was 16 years-old with a strong interest in mycology, and was motivated to translate his knowledge into practice. Within the first year he set up a small farming operation for culinary mushrooms.
Underground network: a wood-rotting fungal mycelium exploring and consuming a log. Photograph: Alison Pouliot
He was adept at explaining the importance of complex networks like those in the image to the left, and made me a believer: the future is fungal, for culinary, medicinal, and bio-remediation purposes. When restoration of this coffee farm started, I built a berm with logs at the core, expecting a mycelium network to develop, creating a healthy border for the shade trees planted.
These days Milo has his own forest tract to continue these pursuits and I keep a lookout for related stories of interest. Merlin Sheldrake has my full attention today:
The study of fungi has long been overshadowed by more glamorous scientific quests. But biologist Merlin Sheldrake is on a mission to change that
Merlin Sheldrake is convinced fungi will play a crucial role in our growing understanding of the environment. Photograph: Cosmo Sheldrake
As a boy, Merlin Sheldrake really loved the autumn. In the garden of his parents’ house – he grew up a few moments from Hampstead Heath, which is where he and I are walking right now, on an overcast summer morning – the leaves would fall from a big chestnut tree, forming gentle drifts into which he liked nothing more than to hurl himself. Wriggling around until he was fully submerged, Sheldrake would lie there, quite content, “buried in the rustle, lost in curious smells”. As he writes in his wondrous new book, Entangled Life, these autumnal piles were both places to hide and worlds to explore. Continue reading
A seemingly brainless organism, the fungus is a model of coöperative resilience. Illustration by Anders Nilsen
It is reassuring to wake up on a Monday morning and read an essay like the one below. Books are still being published. Check. Fungi are still worthy of book-length attention. Check. Book reviews continue. Check. Kind of like yesterday it was a pleasure to know that bioluminescence continues its mysterious ways, and people are still finding ways to be amused by that. The number of articles we have posted here since 2011 about fungi is many times more than about bioluminescence, and our readers demonstrate a greater interest in this subject as well. A book as valuable as this one sounds like from the review should not suffer from an untimely publication date.
One of the minor accompanying pleasures following the reading of this essay is a quick investigation that shows there is a bookshop in the Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta, GA and its counterpart in Athens, GA where you can order the book. Our view is that when you can support an independent bookshop you should, for so many reasons. Thanks to Avid for being there, and to Hua Hsu for this:
In 1957, a man from New York named R. Gordon Wasson published an article in Life about two trips he had taken, three decades apart. The first was to the Catskills, in New York, where his wife, Valentina, took a rambling walk in the woods and became enamored of some wild mushrooms. “She caressed the toadstools,” Wasson recalled, “savored their earthy perfume.” She brought them home to cook, and soon he, too, was enchanted. They spent the next thirty years studying and cataloguing various species, searching out literary and artistic works about mushrooms.
According to Wasson, the world is divided into mycophiles and mycophobes. Reverence might take a variety of forms—think of Eastern Europe or Russia, where foraging is a pastime. There’s a famous scene in “Anna Karenina,” in which a budding romance withers during a mushroom hunt. Wasson was particularly interested in societies that venerated the fungus for spiritual reasons. In Mexico, wild mushrooms were thought to possess “a supernatural aura.” Continue reading
Thanks to Redhouse Studio and the Guardian’s Laura Dorwart for this story:
Fresh and dried yeast. It might not look like much, but it has shaped the way we eat and live, according to a new book. Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty Images
Thanks to Menaka Wilhelm:
An imagined conversation between two yeast cells appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions. “They were discussing the possible purposes of life,” Vonnegut writes. If that’s not absurd enough, their existential discussion takes place against a weird, dismal backdrop, “as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement.” Little did they know, their little yeasty lives had an important, human-centric purpose. “Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Continue reading
Models of stain-fighting enzymes, displayed on clothes in a washing machine. Credit Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times
We’ve been highlighting mycological innovation since the early days of this site, and our enthusiasm has yet to wane. The range of fungi-power will never cease to amaze.
A Danish biotechnology company is trying to fight climate change — one laundry load at a time. Its secret weapon: mushrooms like those in a dormant forest outside Copenhagen.
In the quest for a more environmentally friendly detergent, two scientists at the company, Novozymes, regularly trudge through the mud, hunting for oyster mushrooms that protrude from a fallen beech or bracken fungi that feast on tough plant fibers. They are studying the enzymes in mushrooms that speed up chemical reactions or natural processes like decay.
“There is a lot going on here, if you know what to look for,” said Mikako Sasa, one of the Novozymes scientists.
Their work is helping the company develop enzymes for laundry and dishwasher detergents that would require less water, or that would work just as effectively at lower temperatures. The energy savings could be significant. Washing machines, for instance, account for over 6 percent of household electricity use in the European Union.
Enlisting enzymes to battle dirt is not a new strategy. Over thousands of years, mushrooms and their fungi cousins have evolved into masters at nourishing themselves on dying trees, fallen branches and other materials. They break down these difficult materials by secreting enzymes into their hosts. Even before anyone knew what enzymes were, they were used in brewing and cheese making, among other activities. Continue reading
A forest floor dark honey fungus, or Armillaria ostoyae. The “Humongous Fungus,” living beneath the soil in Oregon sends these fruiting bodies, or mushrooms, above ground to disperse spores. Credit Arterra/UIG, via Getty Images
The Science section of the New York Times is a dependable source of occasionally brilliant ecological findings (amidst the more common overdoses of dark and dreary news) and this one helps start a new week on solid ground:
A new genetic analysis reveals the tactics that helped fungi in the Armillaria genus get so good at expanding and killing host plants.
Thousands of years ago, two microscopic spores spawned and created a monster. It grew — up to three feet a year — sending out dark, gnarly, threadlike organs called rhizomorphs that explored the subterranean darkness, foraging for food. Now it’s a nebulous body, a tangled mat beneath the Oregon soil that occupies an area the size of three Central Parks and may weigh as much as 5,000 African elephants.
Its scientific name is Armillaria ostoyae, but you can call it The Humongous Fungus. It’s the largest known terrestrial organism on the planet, according to the United States Forest Service.
The design company Ecovative makes a variety of packaging materials using mycelium fungus. Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Thanks again to Stephanie Strom for a story about ecology that surprises:
For the environmentally conscious eater, they are among the most inconvenient truths: Too much food goes to waste. Too much packaging comes with the food. And too much of the packaging is made to last for ages.
Now there may be a single answer to all three problems: using excess food to make the packaging. Continue reading
Forests and fungi–words that make me think of Milo circa 2010-2012 in the south of India, especially in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (but also later, writing about fungi in relation to food waste). When I first heard this a week ago, it seemed typical of Radiolab’s attention to quirky outlier science stories:
Saturday, July 30, 2016
A forest can feel like a place of great stillness and quiet. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a hidden world beneath your feet as busy and complicated as a city at rush hour.
In this story, a dog introduces us to a strange creature that burrows beneath forests, building an underground network where deals are made and lives are saved (and lost) in a complex web of friendships, rivalries, and business relations. It’s a network that scientists are only just beginning to untangle and map, and it’s not only turning our understanding of forests upside down, it’s leading some researchers to rethink what it means to be intelligent.
And it was typical, in that sense. But Milo’s attention to the underworld of fungi, which at the time seemed to me as quirky as this Radiolab story does today, got me to start paying attention to anything in our news network with certain keywords (mushroom, fungi, etc.) and just now I came across a short journalistic account that taps into the same science as the Radiolab piece above, and I am realizing it may not be merely quirky: Continue reading