Six fungi to watch
1 THE PLASTICEATER
Aspergillus tubingensis In 2017 a strain of this fungi was discovered on a rubbish heap in Islamabad, Pakistan. Mycologists at the Kunming Institute of Botany in Yunnan, China, discovered that it could use enzymes and the brute force of its root-like mycelia to break down polyurethane — the stuff of your washing-up sponge and the innards of your fridge and sofa.
2 THE SLAVEOWNER
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis Some parasitic fungi species pump cicadas with hallucinogens. Others cause flies to commit suicide. This one invades Amazonian ants, takes control of their muscles (not their brains) and drives them to a sweet spot of temperature and humidity. The fungus then consumes the ant’s body and grows its own fruiting part — a tiny “mushroom” — through its head.
3 THE BEE MEDICINE
Ganoderma resinaceum Honeybee populations are under attack from virus carrying mites. Entomologists at Washington State University in the US found that feeding colonies mushroom extract, diluted in sugar water, produced a 45,000-fold reduction in one common infection. This is science following nature. Bees often feed on mycelia — possibly to benefit from antiviral compounds.
4 THE SURVIVOR Tricholoma matsutake This earthy-tasting autumn mushroom has been prized in Japan for centuries, but its habitat — red pine forests — has almost vanished because of heavy logging. Not so in parts of the US and China, where itinerant foragers supply the market. It thrives quietly in woodland ravaged by industry and so do the pickers.
5 THE ANTIDEPRESSANT
Psilocybe cubensis Psilocybin — the psychoactive compound in “magic” mushrooms — is the subject of trials at King’s College London, partly financed by the billionaire Peter Thiel. The aim: to treat intractable forms of depression. Some reported a 50% reduction in symptoms three months after their dose, which is taken in a candle-lit room with forest scenes on the wall.
6 THE HOME COMPUTER
Pleurotus djamor Quick-growing oyster mushrooms produce masses of mycelia that can be moulded into building materials that are, relative to their weight, stronger than concrete. Researchers at the University of the West of England in Bristol in the UK are using them as the basis for a fungal computing project that aims to embed living mycelium networks into mushroom houses of he future.