Termites have been cultivating and consuming the world's largest edible mushrooms, up to one meter in diameter, for 30 million years. Mushrooms also set records for their protein content, which exceeds that of soy and chicken.
Research initiated by Professor Michael Poulsen of the Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen aspires to cultivate these mushrooms – which are named, Termitomyces, by voracious insects – without however involving them. (1)
1) Termites and fungi, natural symbiosis
The mushrooms Termitomyces they live a symbiotic relationship with termites:
– termites collect and chew organic plant materials such as leaves, wood and grass, thus pre-digested upon entry into their intestines.
– the droppings (ash) are released into insect nests within the fungi, which thus grow and also feed the termites.
2) Mushrooms, sustainable proteins, food safety
'The mushrooms they are a good source of protein and there is a need for sustainable protein alternatives to meat. (2) The types of edible mushrooms on the market are still few though. And the selection of those currently cultivated derives mainly from the ease of growing them, rather than their nutritional and health value.
Here we have a fungus [Termitomyces, ed] that has already been optimized in nature to be an ideal food source for animals, which means that it also has high qualities as a food source for humans' (Professor Michael Poulsen, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen).
3) Mushrooms Termitomyces, nutritional virtues
The protein content in mushrooms Termitomyces it is higher than that of chicken and plants such as soy, corn and peas, explains Professor Poulsen. They also contain all nine essential amino acids, like meats, as well as a wide range of healthful vitamins. In addition to having a good taste.
The gigantic mushrooms of this species, generally harvested once a year, have therefore already been sold for some time as expensive delicacies on the Chinese market. As well as in rural areas of South-East Asia and Africa, where they represent an important source of protein.
4) University of Copenhagen, the research project
THEIndependent Research Fund Denmark supports research by the University of Copenhagen on how to produce mushrooms Termitomyces without the intervention of termites. The research project is divided into two paths:
4.1) Upcycling on a small scale
In a first stage the researchers will experiment with the cultivation of fungal biomass, for food and/or feed use, on a small scale. And then try to scale production up to make it profitable.
Cultivation a circular economy model will follow through upcycling of vegetable waste – such as wood chips or straw, otherwise destined in Denmark for energy recovery – as substrates.
4.2) Biological research
I ricercators they will also study the natural processes involved in the growth of fungi. Trying to replicate the conditions present in termite colonies, as regards temperature, humidity, CO2, composition of the plant biomass, ..
The analysis it will be extended to the identification of genes expressed in fungi during production. 'The more we understand their biology, the better equipped we will be to mimic the conditions needed to grow mushrooms in the laboratory.', explains Professor Michael Poulsen.
5) Socio-economic and market perspectives
The global market of edible mushrooms is expanding rapidly, with estimates of significant annual growth in the coming years (CAGR 2022-2028 +9,5%) reaching a value of USD 86,0 billion by 2028. (3)
Production on a large scale it could have a positive impact on local economies in parts of the world where these fungi already grow naturally, but their harvesting is limited to termite colonies.
6) novel food
The innovation that may result from the promising research under consideration will need to be accompanied by research on the safety of the mushroom Termitomyces for human consumption, to be submitted to EFSA with a view to its authorization as novel food in the European Union.
This path may in part be facilitated by the test of the consumption of Termitomyces in third countries, prior to 15.5.97. You will then be able to follow the simplified notification procedure Novel foods traditional products from third countries, pursuant to reg. EU 2015/2283. (4)
# SDG1, No poverty. # SDG2, End hunger. # SDG3, Ensure health and well-being. # SDG12, Sustainable consumption and production. # SDG13, climate action.
Footnotes to the story
(1) Learning how to grow super mushrooms, with termites as teachers. https://news.ku.dk/all_news/2022/12/learning-how-to-grow-super-mushrooms-with-termites-as-teachers/ University of Copenhagen. 1.12.22
(2) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Proteins from fungi and microfungi, mycoproteins, the ABC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 12.10.22
(3) Global Mushroom Market Size & Share to Surpass USD 86.0 Billion by 2028. Advantage Market Research. https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2022/11/01/2545152/0/en/Global-Mushroom-Market-Size-Share-to-Surpass-USD-86-0-Billion-by-2028-Vantage-Market-Research.html 1.11.22
(4) Dario Dongo, Giulia Torre. Notification of traditional foods from third countries such as Novel Foods in the EU. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 4.3.22
Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.