Fungi and Mould, the Great Decomposers
Fungi and Mold can be found on almost any surface on the planet. There are an estimated one million or more species of these single organisms; about one hundred of which can be found in or on the human body.
Many of these fungi are extremely beneficial to the environment and to human health; while others are dangerous, even deadly. In any case, these organisms serve one core purpose: decomposition.
All living things; humans, animals, and plants alike, will, in death, be consumed and returned to the earth by fungi.
Mould can be found in the soil, in trees, in plants, and in the organic matter, these things produce. Spores, which are the airborne reproductive particles of mold, are always in the air around us. It is impossible to have a 100% spore free environment; however, higher concentrations of these spores can cause extreme allergic, even toxic reactions in those who are highly sensitive to moulds.
This becomes an obvious concern within homes and residences. Here, the spores need only two things to grow: an organic substance like drywall, carpet, or wood; and moisture. Moisture collects in areas of the home with high humidity, poor ventilation, or rain damage.
Spores attach themselves to surfaces and feed upon the organic material and moisture found there. Branches called hyphae begin to form, extending into a network of hyphae called mycelium. The mycelium is the colony of mould that is visible to the naked eye, appearing fuzzy with colors ranging from white to grey to black. Some molds may even appear green or blue in color.
Though in our homes mould may be a mischief, it is a friend and partner to the environment. Mould and fungi found in your garden are an important component of healthy soil and plant growth. Beneath layers of dead leaves, grass, and straw lie miles and miles of mycelial colonies in the soil. Often appearing as fuzzy, white, web-like structures weaving their way through the soil, this mould stays busy at work breaking down and decomposing organic matter. The nutrients it consumes are returned to the soil creating a rich, organic compost.
An estimated 85-90% of plant life, especially trees, benefit from a symbiotic relationship with fungi. This relationship has existed for millions of years. Mycorrhiza is the most common type of beneficial fungi found in soil. This fungi gains from tree and plant roots by feeding off the organic matter it produces and receiving carbon from the decomposed matter. The plant roots then receive the nutrients broken down and returned to the soil by mycorrhizae. The fungus not only provides roots with these nutrients, it also aids in the roots’ ability to absorb nutrients and water while creating a connective system between the roots and soil.
Mushrooms are the fruit of fungal mycelia and come in many different species, most of which are beneficial to the environment. Wherever mushrooms are present is usually an indicator of healthy soil. Mushrooms can also be added to compost as a source of fungal growth in new grow beds. Finding mushrooms in your garden is a positive sign, and mushrooms should generally be left alone, unless there are small children or pets about that may accidentally consume them and suffer toxicity.
Symptoms of mushroom toxicity range from mild gastrointestinal discomfort, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, excessive salivation, respiratory distress or failure, kidney and liver damage or failure, hallucinations, and death. Symptoms usually appear between 5-24 hours after consumption. It is generally imperative to seek immediate medical help when a person or pet is suspected of eating wild mushrooms.
So what else can fungi and mould do for our environment? Besides the specific, natural roles they play in decomposition and soil health, the chemical compounds found in these organisms are studied widely by scientists, biologists, and mycologists to discover how their components may be manipulated to create environmentally safe fungicides and pesticides.
Fungal infestations cause an estimated 20 billion dollars in damage to US farmers every year. Smut fungi, powdery mildew, and fusarium blight are among the most common crop invaders, causing damage to produce and farmers. Fungi can also invade the human body internally and externally, causing mild skin irritation and even deadly internal infection.
The good news is that scientists on the front lines of mycology are studying the way that fungi affect one another. In the battle of good fungi versus bad fungi, the more beneficial species will overcome and consume the detrimental species. Some types of fungi and mould will even grow within and consume insects, organically breaking them down from the inside out and leaving them a fuzzy pile of mould.
Mycologists are using this knowledge to create environmentally safe Bio controls. These Bio controls will ideally eliminate the need for chemical dependency in warding off these enemy fungi and insect pests; another advancement for organic agriculture and a nod to human health.
Some species of mushrooms, namely the oyster mushroom, and their mycelia are known for their ability to break down toxins present in soil and water and to filter out unhealthy components therein, including pesticides and e.coli. These mushrooms have been used to aid in the clean-up of oil spill sites because their properties can break down oil and petroleum. They can also eliminate dioxins and nerve gas toxins.
Scientists are digging deeper into the components and chemistry of these organisms, discovering new ways to use them to our advantage. One of the biggest tests of fungi’s potential environmental impacts in recent years is it’s ability to create a sustainable source of fuel. Some species of fungi, especially Trichoderma reesie, break down cellulose found in wood chips and switchgrass into simple sugars; sugars which can easily be converted into ethanol.
For years, fungi and mold have been closely evaluated for their medicinal properties. The infamous Penicillium chrysogenum species is the bacteria that creates the antibiotics penicillin, amoxicillin, and ampicillin. First discovered in Europe, but developed in the US, Penicillium chrysogenum is found in many fruit and cheese, but the most effective strains are found in the cantaloupe. This fungi is the godfather of antibiotic development and use in human medicine.
In modern times mold and fungi have continued to be studied for medicinal value. The genus of mushroom psilocybe contains the psychoactive component psilocybin. Studies show that a synthesized, less psycho-inductive version of this drug may be effective in the treatment of anxiety and stress in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Fungi benefit human health in more ways than one. Vegan products such as Tempeh, a soybean product, are infused with fungi and considered an excellent source of fiber and protein. Tempeh is a soybean product containing rhizopus oligosporus. Soybeans are fermented in water and fungi, allowing rhizopus oligosporus to completely invade and bind the beans firmly together. Quorn is a product very similar to tempeh, made by binding egg albumen with the fungi fusarium venenatum. It holds similar nutritional properties as tempeh and is used as a meat substitute.
Mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D. Common edible mushrooms include button white, shiitake, cremini, and portobello mushrooms; which are mature cremini. These mushrooms can be found in the wild, but are also grown in special, environmentally controlled indoor and underground farms. Other coveted wild mushrooms include chanterelle, pink-tipped coral, porcini, morel, and truffles.
Yogurt contains activated yeast and live bacteria cultures, and is used widely as a probiotic. Other examples of mould we eat would include that which is found in and on gourmet cheeses such as Brie, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and Blue Cheese. These fungi are benign and offer no good or bad effects.
All in all, fungi and molds are on the front lines of environmental ingenuity. From the beginning of time, these ancient organisms have nurtured the earth and its inhabitants, equally balancing the decomposition and breakdown of old things and using their remains to create things of new. The wisdom of mother nature always guides us home to a pure, clean, organic way of life.