The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
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.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
georgeclerk / E+ / Getty Images
By Jennifer Molidor
One million species are at risk of extinction from human activity, warns a recent study by scientists with the United Nations. We need to cut greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors to avoid catastrophic climate change — and we need to do it fast, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.
"The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism wishes to inform the public that following extensive consultations with all stakeholders, the Government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension," the government announced in a press release shared on social media.
Company Safety Data Sheets on New Chemicals Frequently Lack the Worker Protections EPA Claims They Include
By Richard Denison
Readers of this blog know how concerned EDF is over the Trump EPA's approval of many dozens of new chemicals based on its mere "expectation" that workers across supply chains will always employ personal protective equipment (PPE) just because it is recommended in the manufacturer's non-binding safety data sheet (SDS).
By Grant Smith
From 2009 to 2012, Gregory Jaczko was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which approves nuclear power plant designs and sets safety standards for plants. But he now says that nuclear power is too dangerous and expensive — and not part of the answer to the climate crisis.
By Brett Walton
When Greg Wetherbee sat in front of the microscope recently, he was looking for fragments of metals or coal, particles that might indicate the source of airborne nitrogen pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park. What caught his eye, though, were the plastics.
In a big victory for animals, Prada has announced that it's ending its use of fur! It joins Coach, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and many others PETA has pushed toward a ban.
This is a victory more than a decade in the making. PETA and our international affiliates have crashed Prada's catwalks with anti-fur signs, held eye-catching demonstrations all around the world, and sent the company loads of information about the fur industry. In 2018, actor and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson sent a letter on PETA's behalf urging Miuccia Prada to commit to leaving fur out of all future collections, and the iconic designer has finally listened.
If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.
"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."
The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.
The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.
The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.
"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."
Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.
"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."
Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.
"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."
- Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change ›
- How working less could solve all our problems. Really. | ›
- Needed: A shorter work week – People's World ›