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EXPERT OPINION: Mighty mushrooms, with Sue Van Hook
Photo by Mark McCarty
What good is fungus?
Mushrooms are the planet’s recyclers. They evolved to break down large organic molecules by splitting carbon bonds. Lignin—a tough, fibrous component in the cell walls of woody plants—can’t be broken down by bacteria or other organisms, only by fungi. Using fungi for bioremediation—restoring damaged habitats—is quite common now, and growing. Oyster mushrooms have helped clean up oil spills, the giant straw mushroom digests E. coli bacteria, and others could be used to take up heavy metals or even detoxify pesticides and nerve gas.
What about culinary uses?
Animals from insects to slugs to rodents to humans have always eaten fungi, which contain important micronutrients such as trace minerals.
Giant puffballs are edible when pure white inside. There are edible chanterelles—a type of mushroom with ridges, but not true gills, on the cap’s underside—such as the golden chanterelle, with its uniform apricot color and a fruity smell. Many boletes—with a cap but no gills or ridges, just spongey undersides—are also edible. Bracket fungi include “chicken of the woods,” chartreuse underneath and orange on top, with a lemony and chickeny flavor. Certain morels—which look like a honeycomb on a stem—have a delectable nutty taste.
But beware: There are “false” lookalikes of many edibles as well as many other species that are definitely not good to eat. It’s true that some mushrooms are deadly poison, so never eat one you’re even slightly unsure of.
Any other benefits that mushrooms offer?
How about medicine and art? Fungi have been used in Asian medicine for thousands of years—for example, maitake, shiitake, and reishi are known as general immune boosters. Kombucha tea is a mix of bacteria and yeasts (one-celled fungi) that may have lots of health benefits. Recently the “lion’s mane” mushroom is being tried with Alzheimer’s patients, because it may actually help regrow nerves.
As a knitter, I use fungi to dye my yarns. Different ‘shrooms give a wide range of lovely colors. It only takes three or four hours of steeping, and the colors often end up more light-fast and water-fast than the commercial dyes that rely on toxic metals to set them.
Fungi sound like a gold mine for the right entrepreneur.
Could be. On sabbatical last semester, I consulted for Ecovative Design, led by a couple of young Rensselaer Polytechnic grads who are developing “green” substitutes for certain paper and plastic products. They feed fungi on rice hulls or other agricultural waste, and as the fungal mycelium grows its fibers form a strong, lightweight material that can be shaped and dried to create styrofoamlike containers or packaging cushions or insulation. I focused on their Greensulate product, an organic replacement for the foam insulation boards commonly used in walls and roofs. Along with determining the optimal combinations of fungi types and agricultural wastes, we experimented with botanical waxes and other natural sealants.
Ecovative has funding from the EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program and New York State grants, and last year it won first prize—500,000 euros—at a major international green-ideas conference (see the video, or read the press release). The firm was written up in Scientific American too.
When not in the lab teaching biology students, mycologist Sue Van Hook is a leader in campus sustainability, especially North Woods stewardship.