02/24/2015 05:27 EST | Updated 04/26/2015 05:59 EDT

Humble Shroom Unlikely Soldier In War Against Global Warming

The humble mushroom is an unlikely hero in the war against global warming. An Irish botanist, Brian Murphy, recently found that growing little-known fungi called endophytes inside plants helps defend them against disease but doesn't damage the plants.


The humble mushroom is an unlikely hero in the war against global warming. An Irish botanist, Brian Murphy, recently found that growing little-known fungi called endophytes inside plants helps defend them against disease but doesn't damage the plants.

Instead of buying seeds coated in neonicotinoids, farmers might buy seeds coated with endophyte spores, which would then make their way inside the crop. The discovery is a boon to farmers who are battling herbicide-resistant pathogens and could be a blow to the GMO industry.

Endophytes also help plants grow in inhospitable conditions where few organisms can survive. Murphy conducted rigorous testing to prove it; "We found fantastic benefits," Murphy crowed to Grist magazine. "We hit these plants with them all at the same time, and we really made them suffer. The plants treated with [fungi] had six times the survival rate as those without. It's literally the difference between life and death." A Seattle-based company called Symbiogenics is testing the commercial applications of endophytes in the harshest conditions in the world like Antarctica, the tar sands and at 21,000 feet on Mt Everest for God's sakes.

Mushrooms are also being grown as funky building materials. Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre are trying to make mushroom material a multi-purpose, mainstream product. After earning degrees in mechanical engineering and product design in 2007, the pair came up with a new process for binding particles using mushrooms, creating materials that could replace Styrofoam.

The first product brought out by the 26-year-olds was flip-flops that are 100 per cent biodegradable. They followed soon after with a mushroom-material surfboard. Bayer and McIntyre founded a company called Evocative Design, which uses mushroom spores as the main raw material. Their business goal is to create a viable, eco-friendly alternative to the plastics industry.

They particularly have in their sights set on that toxic landfill-clogger, polystyrene, the ingredient in Styrofoam cups and packing peanuts. Dow Chemical invented Styrofoam as a thermal insulator in the 1940s. The company hollowly boasts that there isn't a coffee cup, cooler or packaging material in the world that isn't made from Styrofoam. Around 1.5 tonnes of stubbornly non-biodegradable Styrofoam is sent to landfills every day.

In a week to 10 days, Evocative Design can grow miles of thin, super-grippy mushroom fibre that can be molded into nearly any shape. "The products literally grow themselves. In the dark. With little to no human contact," says McIntyre. One of their early products is Greensulate, an organic, fire-resistant board made of water, flour, oyster mushroom spores and a mineral found in potting soil called Perlite. Bayer and McIntyre say the product will be as good as most insulation brands out there. And Greensulate is as fire-resistant as commercial fibreglass insulation.

Forget DIY. The hot new acronym is GIY -- as in "grow your own." As in furniture, sculptures, even houses. Evocative Design has developed a kit of dehydrated mushroom material that can be used like sand is used to build a sandcastle. Just rehydrate and create.

Oyster mushrooms feed on cellulose, the main material used in disposable diapers. The mushrooms have enzymes that break down cellulose, which is why they make for artsy pictures growing on dead trees in the forest. That property also makes them ideal for a less esthetically pleasing role: breaking down soiled disposable diapers in landfills. Cultivating oyster mushrooms on the gooey poop packages breaks down 90% of the diaper within two months. Within four, they are rich soil.

Phosphate is a critical component of soil but reserves are rapidly being depleted and some countries are now stockpiling phosphate to feed their populations in the future, according to Ian Sanders of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Some mushrooms acquire and store nutrients, specifically phosphate, and make it available to plants, acting as an extension of the plants' root systems. Scientists are producing large amounts of the fungus in high concentrations in a gel for easy transportation. From experiments on potatoes in Colombia, Sanders discovered the gel could produce the same potato crop yield as conventional methods with less than half the amount of phosphate fertilizers.

Paul Stamets is an unlikely mushroom expert. He started his career in the forest as a logger, not as a scientist, and holds only a bachelor's degree. Still, Stamets has published three of the most widely read books on growing and using fungi, and in 1980 founded a small company called Fungi Perfecti, that sells mushroom products and develops technological applications of mushrooms for environmental applications. Stamets had a hunch that mushrooms could soak up oil, so in 1997 he teamed up with a team of Washington state researchers to conduct experiments using mushrooms to break down diesel-contaminated soil. They found that after two months, the mushrooms had removed 97 per cent of a heavy chemical that other methods had consistently failed to break down.

After the 1986 Chernobyl accident, researchers were astounded to discover some species of fungi that thrive on radioactive particles. "It's damaging to plant and animal tissues but these fungi somehow capture it like plants capture sunlight and use it to power their metabolism," wrote Jim Wells in Sound Consumer. Stamets sees an opportunity from the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe to promote the natural healing power of fungi. He suggests there is an "unprecedented opportunity for collaboration, research and wisdom" -- the establishment of a "Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone" in the no-go zone around the damaged reactors. Stamets wants a "high-level, diversified remediation team" that includes "foresters, mycologists, nuclear chemists, radiation experts, government officials, and citizens."