Fungi in the medicine cabinet
Fabulous fungi can eat plastic, build houses and ease depression, writes Matthew Sweet
They were here before us. They may be here after us. They’re in the air. They’re in our guts. They’re in our risotto. They are among the most expensive organisms on earth and the largest. They’re not plants or animals. They can kill us or sustain us, and are themselves almost immortal. They can also revise your consciousness. You don’t even have to take the psychedelic kind; once you start thinking about fungi, the universe changes. In his laboratory at the University of the West of England, Andrew Adamatzky, a charismatic computer science professor with a pleasingly rich Russian accent, is experimenting with mushrooms. His work involves inserting pairs of electrodes into fungi and noting their activity under the influence of various stimuli: ethanol, malt, hormones, lasers and the physical pressure of weights. As each is applied he monitors electrical potential difference between the electrodes, measuring its spikes and troughs. Slowly (fungi do nothing quickly), Adamatzky is amassing data for Fungar, a close to R60m project that unites collaborators in Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands.
“This is a first step towards deciphering a language of mushrooms,” he says. And once it has been learnt? “The dream,” he says, “is to grow houses from fungi.” To enter that dream, you must imagine yourself standing in a building composed of inert and living fungal material. The walls and floors are moulded from the stuff of dead fungi, but embedded within them is a network of living organisms that regulate light, atmosphere and temperature.
“The fungi can report to us about the presence of dangerous or good chemicals in the air, soil and water,” Adamatzky says. “They could also respond to changes in our physiological state, indicating to us any potential diseases and malfunctions of our body.” They might even, he speculates, be capable of responding to our state of mind and offering us advice on how to improve it. “Fungi possess the wisdom of immortality,” Adamatzky says. “Therefore they are ‘entitled’ to advise us on what to do.”
If you think this kind of talk sounds weird, you’re not wrong. Fungi are weird. Ineluctably, thrillingly, head-spinningly weird. Most of us, I dare say, think of them as something soft and fleshy that’s either good or bad to eat. But those juicy bodies with which we make soups, sauces and stirfries, or which we see gathering on the lawn or forming fleshy brackets on trees, are just the visible fruit of much more massive organisms. That fruit — the mushroom — is a seasonal production, pushed up to spread spores out into the world. Below ground is where fungi really happens, in vast and rambling tangles called mycelia, which grope their way through the ground in search of nutrients. Not all fungi produce anything you can see on a walk in the woods. Some are unicellular and live in the air or inside other organisms, or grow on rolls at the bottom of the bread bin. (Yeasts and moulds are part of the group.)
A kingdom of their own
The ancestors of modern fungi appeared about 400-million years ago, burrowing into the rock of the young Earth, breaking it down with enzymes. This is why soil exists (and thus all life on land). Some fungi produce thickets of mycelia that can extend over 10km² and achieve thousands of tonnes in mass. These systems have neuronlike capacities. They thrum with biochemical messages, through which they pursue symbiotic relationships with plants and animals. Some fungi, for instance, supply phosphorous to plant roots that provide them with carbon. Mycologists speak of this as a form of trade. Other relationships are less equitable. The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus penetrates the exoskeletons of foraging ants and hijacks their nervous systems, allowing it to pilot the helpless insects to a cosy spot where it kills them and forces fruiting bodies through the base of their heads.
“If you look at the history of mushrooms in the West, they were associated with evil,” says Francesca Gavin, curator of Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, an exhibition last year at Somerset House in the UK. (The Asian story is different: Japanese poets have been writing joyous fungal encomiums for centuries.) More recently, they’ve been associated with drug culture. (Not helpful, Gavin points out, to the Mexican villagers who found themselves besieged by wannabe psychenauts after the publication of a 1957 Life magazine story about the ritual use of psilocybin mushrooms in Oaxaca.)
The counterculture, however, stirred interest in these organisms. For centuries taxonomists had considered fungi to be an unglamorous adjunct to the plant kingdom. But in the 1960s they seceded and were granted a kingdom of their own. In the past decade, work on fungal DNA has reinforced their strangeness and separateness, and ignited the curiosity of researchers beyond the biology department.
Last year Compass Pathways, a British
mental health-care company, raised over R1bn to develop an antidepressant derived from magic mushrooms.
“Corporations are moving into the psychedelic space,” says the mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life ,a mind-bending book about fungi. The global market in mushroom-infused health products — powders, syrups and tonics that claim antiageing and “mood-enhancing” properties — is worth $5.8bn (R85bn) and rising, although its wiser heads make only modest assertions about the effects.
Breaking you down
The online store of Paul Stamets, a US scientist and entrepreneur whose company, Fungi Perfecti, accounts for 60% of the US mushroom supplement market, is careful with its caveats, and his “primordial” confectionery, laced with the my celia of four fungi species, simply promises “a chocolate experience with historic roots”.
However, you don’t have to put them in your mouth. Ikea and Dell have experimented with replacing polystyrene packaging with a mycelium-based bioplastic. For about R23,000 a Dutch company will deliver a “living cocoon”: a mycelium coffin that’s said to speed your posthumous decomposition fivefold. Researchers are exploring more surprising fungal appetites: at least 50 species possess the capacity to break down plastic waste, raising the prospect of an organism that could convert the contents of your recycling bin into edible biomass.
Sheldrake is keen on these projects, and would like to launch a competition in which different strains of waste-guzzling fungi could be put through their paces. (“It’d be like a cross between a Formula One race and a dog show,” he says.) But for a fungi guy, this is a relatively conservative ambition. Others are having thoughts that aren’t fixed to the earth.
Maurizio Montalti, the co-founder of
Mogu, an Italian design company involved in the Fungar project, makes soundproof panels constructed from mycelium fed on agricultural waste, but his successors, he hopes, will be producing replacement organs (“fungi are closer to humans than to plants,” he notes), building the insulated hulls of spaceships and allowing their crews to grow themselves homes on the surface of Mars. “One of the major problems for space exploration is weight and the volume of materials you can transport along space travel,” he says. “But you could transport just the spores and propagate them on site. And fungi could shield you from cosmic radiation because they have mechanisms that allow them to produce melanin.”
More weirdness? Yes. Enough to interest the European Space Agency and Nasa, which commissioned a feasibility study that reached the same conclusion as Montalti: “A my cotectural building envelope could significantly reduce the energy required for building because in the presence of food stock and water it would grow itself.” A similar scene has already appeared in sci-fi — in one iteration of Star Trek, the
USS Discovery is powered by a fungal spore drive tended by a mushroom-obsessed chief engineer named Paul Stamets, after the real-life mycologist.
Fungi, however, do not need to move beyond Earth to allow the discovery of strange new worlds. They can make this one seem profoundly strange. “They’re a great source of ideas and metaphors,” Gavin says. “And we’re looking for those, because the metaphors of technology and progress and the linear future don’t make sense any more. There’s a real opportunity in fungi to completely re-examine our role as human beings in the world.”
Building you up
It’s a Copernican thing: considering the mushroom demonstrates that the world does not revolve around human beings. “Fungi are a vast and ancient lineage and sustain life on Earth in countless ways,” Sheldrake says. “Yet this kingdom of life remains comparatively neglected by humans. I think our ignorance elicits a certain humility.”
In his laboratory Adamatzky is trying to reduce that ignorance and feels that humility. “I think it’s most important not just to think about fungi, but to think together with fungi,” he says. “Fungi possess the most ancient intelligence. Their intelligence is distributed — often distributed over hundreds of hectares of mycelium network.”
It’s also distributed through our bodies. “There are single-cell fungi which live on our skin and in our guts; they release enzymes and neuromediates to affect our behaviour. Fungi control not only ecosystems, they influence thinking and behaviour of humans.”
And this takes us to the weirdest place of all, where future cities made from mushrooms are less an outlandish dream, and more the fruit of ancient partnership. “We all evolved from fungi,” Adamatzky says. “We are fungi.”