marisa morby

Design & Nature Reimagined: Using mushrooms to fight climate change

I love taking something that seems mundane or ordinary and seeing how we can look at it from a different angle to reimagine what it could be. And today that thing is mushrooms.

Sitting with untapped potential, how could mushrooms help us create a better future and mitigate climate change?

To start off, would you like some Cool Facts™ about mushrooms? I'm going to imagine you said yes. Mushrooms are the reproductive structure of certain fungi. Much like a tree bears fruit, fungi can bear mushrooms. A fruit produces seeds that are distributed to spread the main plant, while a mushroom produces spores that are distributed to spread the fungi. When the spores find a suitable area, they take root and form mycelium which is a fungal network that lasts for years and years.

The oldest and largest known fungus is located in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon, covers 1,000 hectares and is around 8,650 years old! Scientists lovingly call it the Humongous Fungus. Cool Fact™ about fungi—they are neither plant nor animal. The are... fungi. Why are they different? Well, animals create energy by eating other organisms. Plants create energy by consuming and converting light. Fungi, however, create energy by letting their mycelium grow into or around their food source, secreting enzymes that digest the food externally, and then the mycelium absorbs the digested nutrients. Now that we've had a crash course in mushrooms, how can they help us address climate change?

Soil and fungus work together to store carbon

Soil in itself is the biggest terrestrial reservoir for carbon, meaning that it stores a LOT of carbon. When plants die, the carbon from the plants is released into the air, but the composition of the soil can slow this process. That's where fungus come in.

Some types of mycelium are really helpful to plants and forests; they have a symbiotic relationship and can help share and distribute nutrients among the forest. Other mycelium act more like parasites, feeding off of the forest floor.

Some of these helpful fungus though, have been shown to reduce the release of carbon from the soil. In fact, scientists "found that soils dominated by ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal (EEM) fungi contain as much as 70% more carbon than soils dominated by arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi." As we learn more about which fungus is better at storing carbon, and where it thrives, think about what this could mean for farming or even our home gardens. Maybe by growing mushrooms in our own backyards we can help trap a bit more carbon, and on a global scale, that could have an actual impact.

The future is coming up mushrooms

Ecovative Design is going all in on mushrooms. They've recognized that mushrooms have untapped potential to help us rethink everything from packaging to food alternatives. Their portfolio includes a foam like material made of mycelium, meat alternatives made of mushrooms, and a mushroom composite used to make packaging for shipping goods. The fact that one company can explore these three very different areas by reimagining how we grow and use a fungus is pretty extraordinary, and makes me think that there's probably a whole boatload of possibilities.

Mushrooms can return us back into the earth

content warning: death

The past 10 years or so I've been really taken with the idea of living cemeteries (stay with me here). Instead of burying our loved ones in the grass and sticking a stone on top of them, what if we returned them to the earth and planted a tree? That way when you went to visit your grandma you'd be walking in a beautiful forest with ferns and flowers, rather than rows full of placemarkers, patchy grass, and dried up flowers in vases.

Well, someone else had a similar idea to mine.

A company called Coeio created a burial shroud that uses mushrooms to help clean the body's toxins as it decomposes, and helps create more fertile ground for plants. I absolutely love the idea of returning to the earth like this. And while this may seem indirectly related to climate change, this new innovation could push us to plant more trees and more gardens where our loved ones could rest, which would be better for our emotional well being and better for the planet. Additionally, it could help us rethink our burial rituals and reduce cremation which, in the U.S., accounts for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year. This is a bit of a reflective and sad way to end this newsletter, but I'll leave you with some happy mushrooms bathing in the light.

Mushroom on a log on the forest, backlit by sunlight.

Photo by hp koch on Unsplash