Could Mushrooms Help Us Fight the Climate Crisis?
Mushrooms have a remarkable ability to absorb carbon amongst their many other industrial, nutritional and pharmaceutical benefits.
Just recently, a student in Nebraska built a fully functional canoe out of mycelium, the dense, fibrous roots of the mushroom that typically live beneath the soil. Katy Ayers, who built the canoe, is part of a growing movement of people who are raising awareness that mushrooms and their many complex parts may hold some of the solutions to the world's most intractable environmental problems, as NBC News reported.
Katy Ayers, a student in Nebraska, built a fully functional canoe out of mycelium, the dense, fibrous roots of the mushroom that typically live beneath the soil.
Katy Ayers / Facebook
"Mushrooms are here to help us — they're a gift," Ayers said to NBC News. "There's so much we can do with them beyond just food; it's so limitless. They're our biggest ally for helping the environment."
She noted that mushrooms can break down harmful pollutants and chemicals and "be used for everything from household insulation to furniture to packaging, replacing plastics, Styrofoam and other materials that are hard to recycle and harmful to the environment," as NBC News reported.
There's a growing body of evidence of how mushrooms can help the environment. In a 2008 TED talk, Paul Stamets discussed six ways the mycelium fungus can help save the planet, including cleaning polluted soil, making insecticides, treating smallpox and even flu viruses. In the talk, Stamets discusses an experiment where mycelium spores were put on diesel and petroleum waste spill. The spores absorbed the pollution and sprouted oyster mushrooms, which attracted insects, which brought birds that dropped seeds, and "our pile became an oasis of life," Stamets said. "These are gateway species, vanguard species that open the door for other biological communities."
Mycelium, as Ayers proved with her canoe, make great building materials. Using mycelium in construction could be a necessary tool to fight the climate crisis. As Fast Company reported, buildings and construction contribute 39 percent of the world's carbon footprint. Energy used to heat, cool and light buildings accounts for 28 percent of these emissions. Cement alone accounts for 8 percent of global CO2 emissions.
Mycelium materials, on the other hand, "grow by digesting nutrients from agricultural waste while bonding to the surface of the waste material, acting as a natural self-assembling glue. The entire process uses biological growth rather than expensive, energy intensive manufacturing processes," as Fast Company reported.
Some mushrooms will even consume plastic, which can help mitigate the waste crisis. According to the State of the World's Fungi 2018 report, the mushroom Aspergillus tubingensis has the ability to grow directly on the surface of plastic and has properties that deteriorate the material.
Researchers also found that a naturally occurring bacterium that occurs from harvesting mushrooms can actually be turned into a biofuel, which can reduce emissions from biofuels, according to a study in the journal Science Advances.
Mushrooms are even a solution for packaging. The New York-based biotech company Ecovative Design, for instance, has made packaging material which has been used by companies such as Ikea and Dell, according to NBC News.
As for Ayers' canoe, it is still alive and sprouts more mushrooms every time she takes it out on the water. It has inspired her and her building partner to experiment with making chairs, landscaping bricks and other items, as NBC News reported.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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