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  • Sai Debgupta

Fungi Can Help Solve The Climate Crisis

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Fungi are often overlooked. Mushrooms are food, their root-like mycelium is weird and clingy, and they’re a pain to remove once they invade a garden. The wood wide webs, or mycorrhizal networks, are systems of fungi that connect entire forests. Although they play an important role, they were not given much importance until recently. Made up of what are essentially the roots of mushrooms, the body of the fungus, they can reach extremely large distances underneath the surface of the earth and they link one tree to another by connecting with other fungi. Now that it has been realized that they help trees communicate with one another, maps are being made of these networks all over the world. As scientists realize the extent of the influence fungi hold, and the amount of potential they have in the fight against climate change, new efforts have been undertaken to see exactly what fungi can do.

Mycorrhizal fungi connect two pine saplings.

The most widely known function of fungi is that they decompose dead organisms like worms do. They use their mycelium to crumble any trees or animals, gathering nutrients until the organism is absorbed into the fungus or the soil. Another piece of common knowledge is that trees gather carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen, storing carbon within themselves as they do. Much like whales, when they die, all that carbon is eventually released into the atmosphere, causing fungal decomposition to be one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions (Entangled Life). This means that studying what affects fungal decomposition rates can help predict the global carbon cycle that controls temperature and climate in the entire world. According to lead author on this topic Nicky Lustenhouwer, “Fungi differ massively in how quickly they decompose wood, releasing carbon back into the ecosystem. Our study identifies different fungal traits that explain this variation, which has great potential to improve predictions of the carbon cycle in forests.”

Fungi have also been turned into everyday objects such as furniture or clothing. The fashion industry has become extremely wasteful with the development of “fast fashion.” According to the World Economic Forum, in 2014 people bought 60% more clothes than in 2000 and kept them for half as long. 85% of all textiles go to landfills each year, and fashion production makes up 10% of our carbon emissions while drying up some water sources and polluting others. Recently, plant-based fabrics have been on the rise, including fabric made of mushrooms. By feeding the mushroom mycelium with bio-substrates and molding them into certain shapes, when the fungus dies it can be turned into fabric and used for clothing. Furniture can also be made in a similar process. As for furniture, that has also been garnering some attention. A company called Mycoworks has begun making compostable chairs and tables of fungi. Made in a very similar fashion, once the fungi have been shaped and fed on bio-substrates, the structure is placed in an oven to denature them and removed from the mold. Both of these have the potential to help reduce carbon emissions.

Fungi can be trained to digest cigarette buts.

As many people are aware, plastics are a major contributor to global warming. To solve this many methods of speeding up the decomposition rates of plastic have been looked at by scientists, leading them to discover a certain kind of fungus. In 2011, a team of researchers at Yale University discovered that certain members of the Pestalotiopsis genus of fungi could dissolve PUR, or polyester polyurethane. Certain fungi of that genus were even capable of surviving solely off of the PUR. This discovery has led to the consideration of using them to decompose the PUR in landfills. That 2011 discovery led researchers to recognize that many species of fungi were in fact capable of plastic bioremediation including the common and edible Oyster mushroom, which remains edible throughout the process. Scientists and researchers have begun considering whether Oyster mushrooms could possibly be used as a recycling system in houses.

Fungi have many, many uses, and they’re not limited to eco-friendly replacements for other materials. Research on how they expand, how they survive, and the different uses and methods for different fungi use is only now beginning to gain traction. Fungi have so much amazing potential that the solution to the climate crisis may be living beneath our feet.

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