Stinkhorns, Truffles, Smuts: The Amazing Diversity—and Possible Decline—of Mushrooms and Other Fungi
By Alexander Weir
"Whatever dressing one gives to mushrooms ... they are not really good but to be sent back to the dungheap where they are born."
French philosopher Denis Diderot thus dismissed mushrooms in 1751 in his " Encyclopedie." Today his words would be dismissed in France, where cooks tuck mushrooms into crepes, puff pastry and boeuf Bourguignon (beef Burgundy), to name just a few dishes.
The French aren't alone. Mushrooms and their biological relatives feature in global cuisines from Asia to sub-Saharan Africa. Here in North America, they are part of many holiday meals, from humble stuffed mushroom caps to a single costly truffle shaved over pasta. Late fall is wild-mushroom foraging season in much of the U.S., so it's a good time to learn about these fascinating organisms—and to know that some popular species are declining.
Fungi, Not Vegetables
Human experience with mushrooms dates back thousands of years, including references from China, Africa, Greece and Rome. One of the first is attributed to Euripides (A.D. 450-456), who commented on the death of a mother and her family from mushroom poisoning. Indeed, a few species are poisonous—notably, Amanita phalloides, the so-called death cap mushroom, which sickened 14 people in California in 2016. Three required liver transplants.
All the more reason to learn some mycology—the science of fungi. This mega-diverse group of organisms is biologically distinct from its better-known counterparts, plants ( Plantae) and animals (Animalia). Along with mushrooms, it includes such curiosities as conks, puffballs, earthstars, stinkhorns, birds-nests, truffles, morels, molds, rusts and smuts.
Unlike plants, fungi do not have chlorophyll, the pigment in plant leaves that converts light energy to chemical energy through photosynthesis. Instead, fungi are decomposers: They release enzymes that break down tissues from living and dead plants and animals to nourish them as they grow.
Most fungi grow in or on a natural substrate, such as dead logs or manure (Diderot was not wrong to say that they came from a dung-heap). Commercial mushroom growers use materials such as straw or coffee grounds. Mushroom spores put out filaments ( hyphae) that form a network (mycelium). This is the organism's feeding stage, and in some species can grow to an enormous extent, largely hidden in the soil.
Oyster mushroom mycelium growing in a petri dish on coffee grounds. Tobi Kellner
Almost miraculously, in response to a range of environmental cues such as moisture and temperature, this network produces "fruiting bodies" or reproductive structures, that typically erupt out of the substrate. These structures are what we think of as mushrooms. They come in many sizes, shapes and colors, and can either persist or appear and then disappear in a matter of hours or days.
The mysterious origin of these seemingly magical apparitions has fascinated humans for millennia. Certain species erupt naturally in circular formations, which are widely known as "fairy rings" and linked in European folklore with fairies and other magical creatures. Many accounts claim that psilocybin mushrooms, which contain hallucinogenic compounds, have been used for mind-altering purposes for millennia. Today they are being studied as a possible treatment for depression.
Abundant But Also at Risk
Even after more than 200 years of exploration, scientists estimate that only about 5 percent of a likely 1.5 million species of fungi have been described and named. Of those, roughly 10 described species have been "domesticated" and form the basis of the global cultivated mushroom industry, which has an annual value estimated at more than US$35 billion and rising. A 2004 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report documented use of more than 1,100 species in over 80 countries.
Meilinger Lab pdf. Bradley Meilinger
Detailed studies have helped to dispel the commonly held view that mushrooms are a low-calorie food with little nutritional benefit. We now know that they are typically low in fat, sodium and carbohydrates, but high in
vitamin D, potassium and antioxidants. In short, mushrooms are increasingly recognized as nutritional powerhouses.
Historically, mushrooms were eaten mostly at subsistence levels in rural communities in developing countries. Recently, however, an export trade has developed for wild varieties, moving mainly from poor to rich countries. This growing demand reflects recognition of wild edible mushrooms' nutritional value, but has also been linked to a decline in the numbers and diversity of mushroom fruiting bodies in traditional centers of high consumption, such as Europe and Japan.
This trend is a serious concern for scientists, who are continuously learning more about the important ecological roles that fungi play. Some form relationships with plant roots that sustain the growth of native forests and commercial tree plantations. As decomposers, fungi also recycle nutrients from dead matter in many different types of habitats.
There are vast gaps in our knowledge about fungal biodiversity and how these organisms are affected by trade, land management practices, air pollution, habitat loss and global climate change. One recent study identified three unknown species of porcini in a packet of dried Chinese mushrooms purchased in a London grocery store.
Huitlacoche, a fungus that grows naturally on corn, is harvested as a delicacy in Mexico. Russ Bowling / Flickr
Many countries are developing or have published
Red Data Lists of threatened fungi. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is accepting information for a Global Fungal Red List Initiative that aims to assess and classify at least 300 species of threatened fungi.
Mycologists like me are also a dwindling resource. The number of positions at universities, research institutes and botanic gardens has declined in recent years. Inventorying, describing and understanding the impacts of human-induced and natural disturbances on fungal communities is a huge and challenging task, and an essential step toward determining whether harvesting wild fungi at the current level is sustainable. But this work is starting to gain momentum. Finally, humans are starting to see fungi not just as commodities or as biological organisms, but also as important contributors to ecosystem function that are worthy of conservation.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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