Tuesday, March 17, 2009


As I mentioned in my post on mycorrhizal fungus, there are three categories of mushrooms. I already covered mycorrhizal, and parasitic mushrooms do more harm than good. Saprophytic mushrooms, on the other hand, are one of the most versatile tools in the bioneer's toolbox. For clarity, it is worth mentioning that when I talk about "mushrooms," I am actually talking about the fungus that makes the mushrooms.

Saprophytic mushrooms break down dead material, usually of plant origin, to produce dirt (eventually, with a little more work) and mushrooms. There are several factors about the fungal lifestyle that make them of interest. The first is how they get their food. Plants make their own. Animals can move around to get their food. Mushrooms can do neither. Mushrooms have had to evolve some pretty amazing adaptations to make this lifestyle work for them. Being the last to the table and the slowest to eat, the mushrooms don't even get many leftovers and are usually stuck with eating the table itself. So they have adapted an impressive chemical arsenal for digesting whatever they can find. Fungus and bacteria are really the only things that can truly digest wood fibers. Mushrooms do it best. They grow into and through the wood and digest it with a series of extra-cellular enzymes.

Unlike plants and animals, mushrooms really can't enclose their bodies, which are composed of a substance called mycelium, a network of fine fibers, and create a defensible barrier to infection from bacteria and viruses. So they have to accomplish that with another set of chemicals. Remember: life creates the conditions necessary for life. Some of these chemicals can be very beneficial to both the environment they are in and for humans. I'll get into that in another post.

The next thing to know is how mushrooms grow. Because of the way they grow through their environment, an environment that is often disturbed, as a network of fine filaments, they are likely to get broken. Mushrooms have developed the ability to form something called "clamp connections." In other words, when mushroom mycelium encounter another filament that is genetically exact, or in some cases just similar, it will connect up with that filament. Not only does this allow them to create vast networks of interconnected mycelium, but it also allows them to connect back up when broken. I can't think of another multi-cellular organism that can be chopped up into a thousand pieces, grown separately for months and then be put back together and still reconnect back into one organism.

For the bioneer, the list of tasks that can be accomplished with saprophytic mushrooms is long. They can break down organic matter, especially wood, rapidly. Some kinds work well with plants. They can be used to heal disturbed or polluted environments and restore them to a natural state. They can be used to filter and purify runoff from a contaminated site. They can produce food and medicine for people. They can make good, healthy soil. The list goes on. Going into details about what mushrooms can produce what miracles and how to do it will be one of the major on-going topics of this blog. I don't have the space to go into a comprehensive list of what you can do with mushrooms, but here is a selection of interesting facts:

Oyster mushrooms are actually carnivorous. Scientists have observed them attracting, drugging, killing and consuming nematodes. Nematodes are a class of microscopic worms that are very harmful to cultivated plants and sometimes parasitic to humans and livestock.

Straw has little nutritional value to livestock. It is mostly used as a bulk feedstock when other sources are scarce. However, it has a great deal of nutritional value to mushrooms. For each pound of dry straw, you can produce, with the right variety of mushroom, up to one pound of mushrooms (keep in mind that mushrooms are about 80% water). When the spent straw is done producing mushrooms, you can then feed what is left to the cattle and it actually has MORE nutritional value than the original bale.

Two petri dishes of mushroom mycelium, if expanded properly under the right conditions, can produce a million pounds of mushrooms (actual mushrooms, not mycelium) in just 12 weeks.

King stropharia mushrooms cannot produce mushrooms in a sterile environment, requiring a healthy population of bacteria in the soils it inhabits. This mushroom has been used to filter E. coli laden water in farm runoff, removing nearly all of the harmful bacteria.

Recent studies have shown that mycelial networks of mushroom-producing fungus are the largest organisms on the planet, being measured in acres or even square miles. Of course, the ones they know about are honey mushrooms, a parasitic mushroom that kills trees, creating a large, easy-to-spot clearing.

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