The Magic of Mushrooms in Fighting Climate Change

Katy Ayers paddles her canoe on a Nebraska lake.

College student Katy Ayers has built a canoe out of mushrooms. Image: Katy Ayers/NBC

This year there’s been lots of talk about whether forests are the key to fighting climate change. And while forests are critical, mushrooms are the unsung heroes that are key in helping forests store their carbon. Thanks to fungi there’s twice as much carbon locked in the ground as in the atmosphere.

But now, researchers are discovering that mushrooms can be used for everything from household insulation to furniture to packaging, replacing plastics, Styrofoam and other materials that are hard to recycle and harmful to the environment. They’ve even been found to eat plastic.

Why This Matters: A team of researchers at Boston University explained that human activity and pollution are causing forests to lose their fungal carbon guardians, and the loss of these fungi may be accelerating climate change. Mushrooms can be used to solve many of our sustainability and packaging challenges but the mighty mushroom deserves a little more consideration from us. Habitat loss and climate change don’t just affect trees, they also cause the loss of the carbon sequestration potential of fungi.

Not All Mushrooms Created Equal: As Boston University explained,

Scientists have come to learn that understanding which forests are best at absorbing CO2 requires understanding which mycorrhizal fungi are present in that forest’s microbiome.

  • Trees form partnerships with many different root fungi, but scientists have learned that particular root fungi, called ectomycorrhizal fungi, are helping trees absorb CO2 even faster.

Furthermore, ectomycorrhizal fungi can slow down decomposition, a natural process that returns carbon from forest soils back to the atmosphere.

The Potential: Katy Ayers, 28, a student at Central Community College in Columbus, Nebraska studies how mushrooms can be grown and used for all sorts of applications. She even created a canoe out of mycelium, the dense, fibrous roots of the mushroom that typically live beneath the soil.

As NBC reported she is part of a growing movement of mushroom advocates, people who believe these squishy, sometimes edible fungi can help solve some of our most pressing environmental problems.

“Mushrooms are here to help us — they’re a gift,” Ayers said. “There’s so much we can do with them beyond just food; it’s so limitless. They’re our biggest ally for helping the environment.”

Another cool application? Mushrooms can help clean up the sites of former landfills.



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