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Mushrooms, discovering an unknown universe

For years mushrooms have been little studied, it is a huge untapped potential, so far in fact only 6-8% of the mushrooms existing in the world have been identified.

There are two main reasons: DNA sequencing technologies have arrived only recently and a real taxonomy dedicated to fungi has long been lacking. On the other hand, people talk about them again for the countless possibilities they offer in ecological terms and beyond.

The fungal mycelium

The mushrooms they were the first to land on Earth 1,3 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years before plants. Their evolutionary advantage is attributable to the mycelium of which they are made, in turn formed by hyphae, the mass of ramifications which forms the vegetative part of the fungus.

The mycelium keeps soils together, it can hold up to 30.000 times its mass. Hyphae intertwine in the root tips of plants on a cellular level. In this way, individual plants are linked to each other by an underground network: a vast, highly intricate collaborative structure called Wood Wide Web. To date, more than 90% of plants depend on species of mycorrhizal fungi because a multidirectional transfer of nutrients to plants takes place through the mycelium.

The Hidden Order by Sheldrake

The notoriety of mushrooms has recently increased thanks to Merlin Sheldrake, biologist, British popularizer and author of the book 'The hidden order - the secret life of mushrooms'.

Sheldrake offers the reader a transversal treatment between biology, literature, ecology, technology, dedicated entirely to the kingdom of mushrooms.

Mushroom Secret Resources

As well as uses in processing food and nutrition (1), Sheldrake tells us that mushrooms have surprising properties that are adaptable to various sectors and applications.

1) Microremediation

Paul Stamets, mycologist, founder of Fungi Perfecti, a company with the aim of creating a bridge between people and mushrooms and author of TED talk in 6 ways mushrooms can save the world, invented Mycobooms to biodegrade petroleum.

The Mycobooms are floating arms of straw filled with mycelium of Pleurotus or oyster mushrooms that produces enzymes, peroxidases, capable of breaking down oil, especially the more complex polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), into ever smaller aromatic rings that make the PAHs available for bacteria and other organisms to finish off Work. Mycobooms are totally biodegradable and use hemp socks approximately 6 meters long which can float for up to 4 months.

Another . of researchers found that the mycelium of the Pleurotus can grow among human waste, for example on used diapers (2) or cigarette butts, while in India they are experimenting with their use for the degradation of agricultural waste, in fact with the enzymatic combustion of the material, the amount of biomass burned by combustion it is less and improves the quality of the air (3).

They are also studies of how mushrooms are able to break down pesticides, explosives, some types of plastic and many drugs. Stamets, in Mycelium Running, describes how mushrooms Trametes e Psilocybe azurescens are able to break down a powerful neurotoxin, dimethylphosphonate. Thanks to these capabilities, the mycelium of mushroom cultivation also presents itself as the solution to filter water from E. E. coli coli, cholera, Listeria and other pathogens; phosphates, fertilizers, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals and petroleum-based toxic wastes.

2) Agricultural collaborators

Mycorrhizal fungi they can improve the quality of the crop as studies on various horticultural species show (4), they supply plants with more than 80% nitrogen and 100% phosphorus, they can also increase the ability of plants to compete with weeds; they also improve their resistance to diseases by strengthening their immune system. They also make them less sensitive to drought and heat and more resistant to salinity that is increasing with climate change (5) and to heavy metals. They even enhance the ability of plants to repel pest attacks by stimulating the production of defensive chemicals.

Put into practice this knowledge, however, is not so immediate, the mycorrhizal associations do not always lead to an increase in crops, in some cases they can reduce them. In fact, if the mycorrhizal species were badly associated, the relationship could be more harmful than beneficial for the plants or could replace, in the case of opportunistic fungal species, the local ones.

3) Sensory amplifiers

An experiment on strawberries he also highlighted that by cultivating the same species of strawberries with different species of mushrooms, these change the flavor of the fruit. Basil produces different profiles of its aromatic oil, based on the mushrooms it grows with, as do mint and coriander.

Some mushrooms make tomatoes sweeter, others increase the concentration of iron and carotenoids in lettuce or the antioxidant activity of artichoke or the concentration of medicinal compounds in St. John's wort and echinacea (6).

4) Vaccine manufacturers

The use of mushrooms edibles has not yet been explored for the production of low-cost vaccines needed by low-income populations, although some studies (7) have shown that the Pleurotus produce immunomodulatory compounds.

Pleurotus is a host for the development of innovative vaccines due to the fact that edible biomass can be produced at low cost in a short period of time, due to its high biosynthetic capacity, the production of immunomodulatory compounds and the availability of transformation methods genetics.

The use of other species fungal, like saccharomyces e Pichia, the main strains studied in the biopharmaceutical field, is limited to the production of conventional and expensive vaccines. Also, a study appeared on Science in 2019 reports that a genetically modified strain of Metarhizium, has eliminated almost all the mosquitoes present in an 'almost natural' environment in Burkina Faso. The authors propose to use it to combat the spread of malaria (8).


The plots of the mycelium they create a dense living framework which, if dried, can be transformed into inert material. The outer layer of the champignon can be used to make a substitute material for graphite in lithium batteries. The mycelium of some species can be used as an effective substitute for human skin and is used to promote wound healing.

In the United States, the Ecovative company, is developing building materials from mycelium. The US company also produces packaging materials made from mycelium designed to replace plastic, textile fibers to replace animal skin and even building materials to replace bricks, concrete and chipboard. Mycomaterials are compostable, lightweight, water resistant and flame retardant. They are harder than concrete when subjected to bending and resist compression better than wooden structures.

The future belongs to mushrooms

The mushrooms they are everywhere but it is easy not to notice them (6), shifting our attention to them would open up infinite possibilities and solutions for us in responding to current ecological, nutritional and health emergencies.

Gulia Pietrollini


1) Dongo and Della Penna, Proteins from fungi and microfungi, mycoproteins, the ABC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade) 12.10.2022

2) R.Espinosa-Valdemar,Sturpin-Marion,I. Delfìn-Alcalà, A.Velasquez-Morillas, Disposable diapers biodegradation by the Fungus Pleurotus ostreatus, in "Waste Management", 31,2011, pp. 1683-1688.

3) S. Prasad, An ingenious way to combat India's suffocating pollution, in “Washington Post”, 2018.

4) Colla G, Rouphael Y, Di Mattia E, El-Nakhel C, Cardarelli M. Co-inoculation of Glomus intraradices and Trichoderma atroviride acts as a biostimulant to promote growth, yield and nutrient uptake of vegetable crops. J Sci Food Agric. 2015 Jun;95(8):1706-15. doi:10.1002/jsfa.6875. Epub 2014 Sep 16. PMID: 25123953.

5) Kashyap PL, Rai P, Srivastava AK, Kumar S. Trichoderma for climate resilient agriculture. World J Microbiol Biotechnol. 2017 Aug;33(8):155. doi: 10.1007/s11274-017-2319-1. Epub 2017 Jul 10. PMID: 28695465.

6) M. Sheldrake, Entangled life. How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Future. 2020

7) AS Pérez-Martínez, SA Acevedo-Padilla, M. Bibbins-Martínez, J. Galván-Alonso, S. Rosales-Mendoza, A perspective on the use of Pleurotus for the development of convenient fungi-made oral subunit vaccines, Vaccine ,Volume 33, Issue 1,2015, Pages 25-33, ISSN 0264-410X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2014.10.059.

8) B. Lovett, E. Bilgo, S. Millogo, A. Outarra, I. Sare, E. Gnambani, RK Dabire, A.Diabate,RJ Leger, Transgenic Metharizium rapidly kills mosquitoes in a malaria-endemic region of Burkina Faso , in “Science”, 364,2019,pp.894-897.

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Graduated in industrial biotechnology and passionate about sustainable development, she participates in the research projects of Wiise Srl benefit

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