Fungi are friends, not foes

Fungus gets a pretty bad rep, and though our first instinct may be to say, how can I get rid of it?, we may want to take another look at the many benefits of fungi: why they exist, how they have served mammals for millions of years, their benefit to the environment and our health, and even how they could be the secret ingredient to saving us in the future.

Fungi and mammals go way back

We go back.... well, about 65 million years. When the asteroid strike happened and wiped out 70 percent of all life from earth, it didn’t happen all at once. But the lack of sunlight meant that whatever plant life didn’t die on impact, started to decay and rot, which created the perfect conditions for fungi to spread.

This is where us mammals had the advantage for survival. Cold-blooded creatures like reptiles are susceptible to fungal diseases, but mammals’ internal temperature range in the mid 30s, so fungi don’t really harm us. We were able to coexist with fungi and use many of their medicinal properties to not only survive, but thrive.

Fungi as food and medicine

Most people think of the flowering part of fungi (mushrooms) as the only fungi we ingest, but we rely on fungi in our food through more than just mushrooms. We have fungi to thank for fermented foods like sauerkraut, cheese and pickles, or drinks like kombucha and beer. The original purpose of our favourite bubbly beverage—beer—was to provide humans with drinkable water. When we didn’t have the wastewater treatments we do today, we relied on fungi to eat any bacteria toxic to humans, helping us (yet again) to survive a time before modern luxuries.mushroomsPhoto by Andrew Ridley on UnsplashMushrooms are pretty neat and useful though, and we have the mushroom “penicillium” to thank for our modern medicine, penicillin. This special mushroom is responsible for the human population tripling since its transformation into a life-saving medicine. Certain mushrooms are also known to help enhance our immune system, help fight cancers and inflammation, are antiviral and antibacterial—and mushrooms like cordyceps, lion’s mane, and rishi boost our cognitive functioning and help to regulate our nervous systems with their magical properties.

Fungi in the natural world

Fungi have been called the garbage disposal of the natural world. When a tree falls or an animal dies, fungi are on it to begin the decomposition process. Without them, all life would be buried under a big mountain of dead plant matter.

Once they munch on the dead organic matter, they metabolize the proteins and release any locked-up nutrients into the ground, making them available for new plants to use for their growth.

Fungi connect all plants and trees in a strand or branch-like thread called “mycelium”, which is an underground fungal highway from one plant to another. This web of life helps to transport nutrients to all plant life, and also sends out danger signals if something has died or is infected. Essentially, fungi are how everything is reborn; they eat death and create new life.

Using fungi for our future

It’s estimated that there are over 5,000,000 fungi on earth, but we’ve only discovered one percent of them. Fungi have already been thought to be a promising alternative in our climate-focused future, and are also a powerful weapon to fight climate change today.

We currently use fungi as a substitute for environmentally harmful products like polystyrene foam, animal leather and chemical building materials. Fungi can also break down carbon-based diesel oil, and the natural waste from mushroom production can be converted into the alternative biofuel.

In the future, we could see the undiscovered fungi used to break down industrial waste, develop new sources of food, create new medicines and as an alternative to fossil fuels.

There’s really nothing that these little fungi can’t do! So, next time we see a little mold or inconvenient fungus, let’s think about the potential found in that little bit of decay—that little bit of life in death.