Mushrooms are the Messiah, Let’s Fund Mycologists

The next frontier is hidden beneath our feet. Underground lies a whole network, pulsing with energy. Its sophistication and scale rival that of our beloved internet. The missives that flit between these underground creatures are dramatically consequential. They can end or create life.

I’m talking of course about the mycelial network. While we humans are gallivanting and plundering above ground, mycelia are hard at work. Indeed, this system has been called “the neurological network of nature.” Most people are better acquainted with their visible progeny, mushrooms.

Go into any American grocery store and you will find a dinky selection: button, portabella, “white,” and if you’re lucky, shiitake. It’s no wonder that the public has underestimated the power of mushrooms when we only know this grayscale bunch.

The real variety of edible fungi is Seussian in its corporal wackiness. Hericium Erinaceus is nicknamed “Lion’s Mane” for its furry tendrils. Not only does Lion’s Mane look cuddly, but it can improve brain function. In the wild, Reishi mushrooms look like shiny red pancakes. For centuries, Asian herbalists have professed reishi to possess “supernatural” properties. Studies in Japan show that cancer patients react more positively to chemotherapy after ingesting reishi extracts. The infamous “magic mushroom” grows in tight clusters of bells. The chemical psilocybin in “shrooms” can trigger intense emotional reactions when ingested. In clinically depressed patients, scientists posit that these reactions can be harnessed as a treatment.

The reason that I know any of this is thanks to scientists like Paul Stamets. Stamets investigates the mycelial network’s role within forest ecosystems. His website, Fungi.com, puts his philosophy plainly: “MycoDiversity is BioSecurity.” He is one of the most outspoken mycology advocates, recently appearing in the documentary film “Fantastic Fungi.”

Stamets’ moment of enlightenment came during a powerful trip on psilocybin in the 70’s. He credits that experience with curing his speech impediment and sparking his interest in mushrooms. But just as Stamets and others were growing interested in alternative forms of medicine, the Controlled Substances Act brought everything to a screeching halt.

After several bad encounters with magic mushrooms sent people to the hospital, the DEA categorized psilocybin as a Schedule 1 drug, denoting high propensity for abuse or addiction. The War on Drugs pushed government and research institutions to withdraw their support from experimental trials with psilocybin and other mushroom-derived chemicals.

For decades, mycology research was quashed by these policies. Even work on non-psychedelic substances was dismissed as flights of fancy. Without funding, mycologists were forced to the fringe to study their fungal subjects independently. Still today, medicinal research is sanctioned only in a few exceptional cases and with DEA officers’ supervision.

But the tide is beginning to change.

In November, Oregon became the first state to legalize the (heavily regulated) sale of psilocybin. Now, if you are older than 21 and a worthy candidate for therapy, you can trip just like those on thousand-dollar Jamaican retreats.

The general public is starting to catch on, too. Author Michael Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind,” soared on the 2018 bestsellers list as he reintroduced Americans to the tabooed substance, describing his psychedelic trips in great detail.

It’s no wonder why highbrow academic institutions shunned these creatures for decades. Their transformational power could be tremendous for the pharmaceutical, culinary, and engineering industries.

The company Ecovative designed a styrofoam replacement by condensing and shaping mycelial threads. This packaging option is biodegradable and could replace public enemy #1 among environmentalists (New York lawmakers banned styrofoam last year). Another useful function: oil spill clean up. Stamets and researchers in Washington state found that Oyster mushrooms growing in polluted water will slurp up petroleum and grow robustly.

Right now, only a handful of colleges house mycology labs, including Berkeley, Washington State, and Cornell University. The National Institute of Health, academic institutions, and investment companies must open their arms and minds to mycology to usher forth this new era. This world is just as vast as astronomy or marine biology. We simply don’t know what we don’t know.

However, it would be wrong to view this subterrestrial world as merely another territory for capitalist anthro-conquest. We should not treat mushrooms as another commodity for the wellness opportunists to swallow whole and spit out in pastel packaging. These benefits should not be exclusive to a fortunate few. Our treatment of these creatures should be respectful, sustainable, and equitable; so that everyone can have access to their transformational power.

We humans need the mycelial network’s help much more than it needs us. With or without our help it will keep on thriving. This relationship is more commensal than symbiotic. These creatures could save us from our many human vices.

Hear ye, hear ye, the lowly mushroom is the messiah. It’s time we all became believers.

Notes:

1. Fantastic Fungi. Directed by Louis Schwartzberg. 2019.

2. Stamets, Paul. “Mycelium Running.” (2005). In print.

3. Sabaratnam, Vikineswary, et al. “Neuronal Health — Can Culinary and Medicinal Mushrooms Help?” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, Jan. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3924982/.

4. Jin, Xingzhong, et al. “Ganoderma Lucidum(Reishi Mushroom) for Cancer Treatment.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2012, doi:10.1002/14651858.cd007731.pub2.

5. Carhart-Harris, Robin, et. al. “Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: an open-label feasibility study.” The Lancet: Psychiatry. doi: 10.1016/S2215–0366(16)30065–7

6. Stamets, Paul. “About Us.” Fungi.com. fungi.com/about-us.

7. “The Controlled Substances Act. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. 2020.https://www.dea.gov/controlled-substances-act.

8. Pollan, Michael. “How to Change Your Mind.” In Print. 2018.

9. Drug Policy Alliance. “What is the history of psychoactive mushrooms?” Drug Policy Alliance. https://drugpolicy.org/drug-facts/history-psychoactive-mushrooms.

10. Acker, Lizzy. “Oregon becomes First State to Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms.” The Oregonian. 2020. https://drugpolicy.org/drug-facts/history-psychoactive-mushrooms.

11. Cooke, Rachel. “The future is fungal.” The Guardian. 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/aug/23/the-future-is-fungal-why-the-megascience-of-mycology-is-on-the-rise.

12. Sheldrake, Merlin. “Entangled Life.” In print. 2019.

13. Frazier, Ian. “Form and Fungus.” The New Yorker. 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/05/20/form-and-fungus

14. Department of Environmental Conservation. “Polystyrene Foam Ban.” New York State DEC. 2020. https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/120762.html

15. Stamets, Paul. “The Petroleum Problem.” Fungi.com. https://fungi.com/blogs/articles/the-petroleum-problem.

16. Coelho, Sara. “Fun with Fungi: Mycology Careers.” Science. 2009. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2009/07/fun-fungi-mycology-careers

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Amanda Cronin

Amanda Cronin

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Cornell grad. Fulbright scholar. Passionate about the earth and all its inhabitants. Publishing personal and academic essays.