Mycological Strategies for Surviving

The 6th Great Extinction is Happening Now

By Paul Stamets

We are fully engaged in 6x – the 6th greatest extinction of life on this planet known thus far. But this extinction is unique. Not caused by a celestial event like an asteroid impact, or the more earthly eruption of volcanoes or methane hydrate releases trapped in the ocean’s sediments, 6x is uniquely caused by an organism. Us. Not only we are the cause, but also we are likely to be one of its victims. 

Some can argue that extinction events are natural. Indeed they are. 99+% of all species that have existed are now extinct. But we are the first species to be cognizant that our actions are causing this extinction. If we were (or are to be?) truly intelligent organisms, we would work together as a global chorus to prevent our impending demise. Our descendants and this planet will ultimately judge of how intelligent we really are. Unfortunately, this judgment may well be beyond the lifetimes of those reading these words, but not beyond the soon-to be-born generations. 

Here are sobering facts that we are in crisis of historic proportions. We have an estimated 8.3 million species on Earth. But, we are losing nearly 30,000 per year, meaning in the next century, we will lose ~ 3,000,000. And this is if the trends are linear, but many conclude the extinction rates are accelerating due to climate change caused by our population exploding. Sadly, what this may mean is that in a century we will lose more than 1/3 of the species on this planet and we are losing species faster than we can identify them. This loss of biodiversity is a direct threat to our health and food safety including and the very soils that give us life. 

Nature is bound by forces, which mystics, philosophers and religions seek as ‘universal truths’. 

Universal Truths in nature are sometimes so obvious that they are easily missed. One Universal Truth is that matter and life are based on network theory. The organization of galaxies, dark matter, neurons, roots, computer networks, social media, music, mathematics and … mycelium are all structured similarly, conforming to string theory, interlacing each other through the orders of magnitude of existence. 

From these networks, matter organizes; life emerges. This is the way of Nature. 

Networks allow for sharing resources, rapid adaptation, epigenesis and evolution. The interconnectedness of nature holds all living organisms in elaborate networks, where alliances of organisms benefit creating collaborative communities, and in common staves off disruption  - whether they be from pathogens, catastrophia, and or the ebb and flow of the universe. 

 

We are not one organism. Only recently scientists have well established that we are composed of more than 100 trillion “alien” cells, mostly bacteria, compared to the 10 trillion “native”, human cells. This consortium gives us a host of collaborations and defenses that help maintain the equilibrium of ever changing communities. Called the “microbiome”, this new field of study has excited the medical communities as genomics explore what has been largely hidden from modern medical science. Understanding the microbiome has implications for improving health, preventing and curing disease. 

Although quorum sensing in bacterial networks – which helps an organism in a population of many to act as one –only now are we getting the sense that quorum sensing is happening at the most fundamentally subtle levels between species of organisms. In essence, the common language we share with all organisms is composed of a molecular flow of nutrients and messaging molecules we constantly exchange with one another. 

Matter begets life. Life first appears as single cells. Single cells become multicellular. Multiple cellular organisms grow linearly, and then fork, branch and networks – the foundation of communities – are born. For this reason, I believe we will find network-based organisms throughout the universe. This is the way of Being. 

We are all connected by the flow of matter. Life forms are just one assemblage. When we “die”, we de-molecularize into our cellular constituents but do we truly die and cease being? I do not think so. We all share in the same consciousness, limited by perceptive and cognitive constraints. Our matter is liberated from its human form, decomposed by fungi, bacteria, and protozoa to be returned to the networks, which ultimately gave us birth.

After nearly 14 billion years, planet Earth coalesced out of stardust around 4.5 billions years ago. Life began to emerge in its simplest forms about 3.8 billion years ago. First as single celled Archaea organisms, the simplest forms of life emerged and diverged into the kingdoms we know today. 

Between 750 million and 570 million years ago the Earth underwent a great cooling and the majority of planet was covered with a sheet of ice, save for a few occasional slivers along the equatorial regions. Algae, bacteria and fungi thrived under the miles of ice, warmed by geothermal vents and subglacial volcanoes. 

Around 650 million years ago, humans shared a common ancestry with Fungi. Episthokontha is a new super-kingdom to recognize that common heritage, joining animalia (us!) with fungi together. Around 570 million years ago, probably much earlier, the fossil record evidences that multicellular organisms flourished. At around that time, debatably plus or minus a few hundred million years, life marched to land, made possible by the cooperation of fungi and plants forming a holy union. Without fungi, the vast majority terrestrial plants that we know today could not exist. 

From 420-380 million years ago, a giant fungus dominated the landmasses of Earth, reaching heights in excess of 10 meters, weighing tons, by far the tallest of all organisms on land. Known as Prototaxites, this fungus would have attracted lightning strikes, and be a rich site for rapid evolution.  Around 300 million years ago, the super continent Pangaea formed, whereupon all landmasses were sutured together. 

Then, 252 million years ago, between the Permian and Triassic, a great cataclysm visited the earth, resulting in a massive extinction of species. Scientists debate the cause: a cosmic impact from an asteroid? Volcanoes erupting in Eurasia? Methane hydrate bursts from the ocean? I do not see these as mutually exclusive; an asteroid impact could have triggered volcanic eruptions, the emission of toxic methane hydrate. We do know the Earth was shrouded in dust, sunlight was cut off, the majority of plants and animals died…. and fungi inherited the Earth. Those organisms that paired with fungi, whose mycelial networks do not need light, had a better chance of survival. At least 10 millions year would pass before biodiversity levels returned to pre-extinction levels. 

Eventually the continents of Pangaea delinked, drifting apart, as Gondwanaland formed 200 million years ago. The species of Earth, no longer lived on common ground. Rapid species evolution ensued as species differentiated emerging through diverging branches on the tree of life. 

 

As the Earth continued its voyage around the sun for another 185 million more years, another asteroid hit the Earth, killing the dinosaurs along with hundreds of thousands of species. This extinction event set the stage for our emergence. Again, the Earth became shrouded in dust, sunlight was cut off, fungi re-inherited the Earth, and those organisms that paired with fungi would be more likely to survive the ecological holocaust. Small creatures did survive – including our vole-like ancestors. Paleobiologists have identified one primary fungus that surged to the forefront, decomposing the decimated forests: the now extinct Reduviasporonites. 

With the passing of each generation of life, fungi lay down lenses of soils by decomposing the deceased, creating the foundation of the food webs for the descendants to come. These networks, through eons of experience, governed by natural selection, have learned how to host communities of plants, algae, bacteria, protozoa and archaea. Even more so today, this fungal scaffolding remains critical for the multidirectional flow of nutrients via mycelial networks. Moreover, we are just learning that these networks send electrical signals, so we are likely understating their innate abilities. 

Within its matrix are cavities holding water, secreting toxin-decomposing enzymes, and mineral-harvesting acids, relasing nutrients, ultimately balancing microbial populations beneficial to the host ecosystems,These “mycobiomes” that are essential for the emergence of ecosystems – giving rise to the forests, plants, animals and other creatures, so that their biomass can fuel the fungi. 

The network design of mycelium gives it center stage in the design of our food webs. The lessons of evolution have repeatedly shown that alliances with fungi can help us survive. With our knowledge base today, albeit limited, we now know enough to engage fungi to help ecosystems become sustainable. 

Today, we only have 10-15% of the forest debris that nature has needed to build the food webs for sustainable ecosystems. Widespread deforestation, factory farming, population expansion, industrialization and concomitant pollution are on-going threats imperiling our ecosystems and the foundation of our foodwebs at a time when an unprecedented waves of human walk the Earth needing water, sustenance and shelter.

What do I recommend? From a pragmatic point of view – knowing that if it is not practical and economical, then any suggestions will face insurmountable obstacles. So, I make these recommendations, as they are both ecologically rational and economically sustainable. I emphasize solutions using mycelium’s innate network design which will yield immediate and long term benefits. 

 

    Myco Practices for Protecting our Biospheres

Mushroom cultivation centers should be located in every community for recycling debris, and re-invented as environmental healing arts centers. These would teach children and adults on mycological solutions and augmenting synergistic relationships with plants using mycorrhizal, endophytic, and saprophytic fungi. Link all these centers (“I.a.m.’s”, “Institutes of Applied Mycology”) www.fungi.net, so a worldwide web-based network can share knowledge.

  1. Grow mushrooms and mycelium as fungal foods for people, animals (cows, chickens, pigs, fish and insects). 
  2. Use mycelium created from growing mushrooms to filter water of E. coli, cholera, listeria, and other pathogens; phosphates, fertilizers, endocrine disruptors; heavy metals, and petroleum based toxic wastes, 
  3. Using mycelium and commensal bacteria, to generate biofuels, enzymes, mycoattractants and medicines. 
  4. Create genomic culture libraries of as many fungi as possible to protect our fungal heritage for future generations
  5. Integrate fungal platforms for enhancing permaculture, no-till farming, forestry and aquaculture practices.
  6. Grow mycelial mats that services bees by providing essential myconutrients that enhance bees’ host defenses of immunity by up-regulating cytochrome P450 enzymes to destroy exposed toxins, providing antibiotics, polyphenols, complex sugars and other myconutrients for strengthening disease resistance. Mycoattractant fungi can be deployed to stave off Varroa mites. Synergistically, these elements can be put into play to reverse Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which is soon to eliminate bees for commercial pollination. 

In conclusion: 

We are on this Earthship together. Respecting the Earth, learning from evolution, and putting into practice ecologically rationale myco-remedies can help make the course change needed to prevent the 6th greatest extinction on this planet. We have the wisdom and courage to chart a new course. 

Resources:

Books:

  • See Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets, Ten Speed Press. 

TED & TEDMED talks: