Entangled Life Part 4: Fungus, the Remedy?

By Mick Haining

Here’s a new word for me: Mycoremediation. Here’s a very familiar one: Pollution. The two are as bound together as cure and disease. I’ve been seeing and using the word ‘pollution’ for decades but ‘mycoremediation’ I came across first on page 11 of Merlin Sheldrake’s ‘Entangled Life’ – a more thorough examination and explanation of it is described in Chapter 7, ‘Radical Mycology’. ‘Mycos’ comes from ancient Greek’s word for ‘fungus’, ‘remediation’ from a Latin word referring to the restoration of balance. It seems vaguely apt that Latin used Greek to ‘grow’ itself just as fungus can use pollutants to grow. Yes – fungus will eat pollutants.

‘Radical Mycology’ is the name both of a movement founded by Peter McCoy and of a related book he had published. [Now I’ll have to buy that one, too…] Chapter 7 of ‘Entangled Life’ mentions how McCoy trained a specific fungus to live solely on a diet of used cigarette butts. The result? Oyster mushrooms. It notes, too, an experiment in Mexico City that grew edible mushrooms from used disposable nappies! Edible! And the first form of life reported in Hiroshima after the atom bomb? A matsutake mushroom.

Fungi “are able to degrade pesticides”…”synthetic dyes, explosives, crude oil, some plastics and a range of human and veterinary drugs not removed by wastewater treatment plants, from antibiotics to synthetic hormones”. It even removes “infectious diseases such as E.coli” from contaminated water! Doesn’t that sound as if we have found the answer to all of our polluting problems? It isn’t, of course, that simple.

Fungi have developed an impressive ability to survive extinction events for at least one very good reason – they live on what decays. Extinction events leave a lot of death in their wake and that’s where fungi flourish. As Merlin Sheldrake puts it, they are “appetite in bodily form”. They’ve been doing it for a billion years and that’s a long enough time to develop a skill set that exemplifies Barack Obama’s famous “Yes, we can!” But, given that there are around only 120,000 species identified so far out of an estimated 2 or 3 million and that fungi live very secretive lives, it’s quite a task to find and match the fungus to the specific substance that makes existence intolerable for other life forms and, as mentioned earlier, they sometimes need to be ‘trained’. But fungi are not passive learners – they actively try different approaches, just as they can negotiate their way out of a maze – check out page 17 for the latter. Not only that, they sometimes work as part of a team – you don’t bring in the decorators until you have built the walls and put on the roof – and finding the appropriate partners must be at least as difficult as picking a football team to face Brazil in a World Cup match.

It’s nearly time to blow the final whistle on ‘Entangled Life’ but extra time is coming up and maybe a replay… but no penalties! Keep watching!

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