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The Future in Fungi

This article was originally published on The YEARS Project website.


Often, I think that the best thing I could do for this planet would be to leave a well-rotting corpse. Not in a morbid way, but, as one who doesn’t find it easy to believe in an afterlife, I take comfort in knowing that my body is destined for decay. It is a sense of purpose, to be a walking sack of fertilizer, and if I have lived my life well enough, I hope to one day nourish the soil and the land that surrounds me. It would be a privilege to rot well.

I suppose you could say that I’m obsessed with decomposition. Recently, I’ve come to learn the term mycophile – one who loves fungus. On hikes, I’ll wander, intrigued, down the supine spine of fallen lodgepole pines, tracking with my nose the shadows between the log and the soil, in which porous, crawling lichen and fungi slowly churn life back into the soil from which it came. Prehistoric, they grasp blindly for dead biota, trekking slow, deliberate trails across the faces of decomposing trees. I’m fascinated by the processes of returning to the same soil that has nurtured us.

Fungi are a fascinating kingdom, existing somewhere in between animals and plants (well, more specifically, somewhere before animals and plants, back when there wasn’t much distinction between the slimy things that dragged themselves up out of the primordial goo). Fossilized mycelium can be traced further back in our geologic record than practically any other life, and for as long as we’ve been around with them, both humans and 22 of our primate relatives have been consuming mushrooms and fungi. In fact, there’s even an argument that psychedelic mushrooms were essential to our evolution away from our primate brethren and our development of language. So clearly, fungi are doing something right.

When it comes to climate, fungi hold within their strange structures incredible potential for carbon storage and carbon-neutral production. In a 2013 study in Science, researchers found that fungi eclipse plant matter in their ability to sequester carbon in arboreal forests. The fungal networks that exist within stands of old-growth forests around the world are keeping us cool, and we’ll need them more than ever in coming years, as we struggle to catch the carbon we can’t help but spew and store it, hopefully, back in the soil where it belongs.

But carbon sequestration isn’t the only place fungi might save us – we’re approaching a mycelium revolution, and the more we learn about this fascinating kind of fungus, the more we can use it to change the way we live, produce, and consume. Mycelium is a unique type of fungi – it’s multicellular, and can grow into macro-sized structures (like mushrooms!). This makes it a great building block for a lot of substances humans need and use, and we can direct the growth of its fibers to suit our needs. Leather, plant-based meat, and structures for growing organs can all be replicated by this clever little fungus, and in doing so, we may be able to relieve the pressures we put on the natural world and its resources. The revolution is already underway. Mushroom packaging is on the market as a replacement for styrofoam in Europe and the US, and research surrounding mycelium for health and medicinal purposes is on the rise. People are turning to fungi for anti-cancer agents, anti-diabetes research, biocontrol of plant disease, biofertilizers, as a solution for food insecurity, agricultural waste disposal, biofuel, soil regeneration, and plant-based commodities, among other things. Mycelium spores have also proven to be able to absorb pollution from diesel and oil spills, and sprouted mushrooms in its place. Some mushrooms will even consume plastics. The future, it appears, is in fungus.

Although we may feel as if we have evolved far beyond our fungal ancestors, there’s a lot to learn from the gooey beings who first trudged slow, methodical trails along our planet’s face. Some of the first trails in geologic history can be found in Newfoundland, carved by Ediacarans – fossilized biota from roughly 94 million years ago. Now, whether the Ediacarans were fungal or not is of some debate – in fact, we don’t quite know what they were – lichen, algae, protozoan, or fungus – often described as “mud-filled sacks,” these relics of the Cambrian explosion were among the first living beings to move with intention across the slimy surface of early Earth. I first learned about the Ediacarans in Robert Moore’s book, On Trails: An Exploration. In his meandering musings on trails and why we carve them, he journeyed to Newfoundland, to examine the first narrow tracks left by these mysterious beings, only known to us now in the fossil record. Why did they move? While some Ediacarans had mouths, others didn’t, so how they consumed energy is a mystery to us. What Moore discovered, however, was that their movement wasn’t out of hunger, flight, or collective organization – it was a desperate, slow grasp at stability. It was one of the first practices of balance. So in considering why we leave trails, why we follow one another, and what motivates us to move at all, it does us some good to remember that when the first time life on earth decided to follow other life, it was in pursuit of balance.

We trek the similar trails as fungi, even thousands of years later. Slime mold, another eukaryotic organism that was previously classified as fungi, is a multicellular organism that has a kind of intelligence with inner workings we’re just beginning to understand. In one study, this yellow, web-like structure was placed in a petri dish with scattered oat flakes arranged in the pattern of scattered Japanese cities around Tokyo. It grasped widely for the different food sources, slowly surrounding the oats and creating tunnels within itself to distribute the nutrients. In forging connections between its own gooey body and the dispersed food, a web-like pattern emerged. In a matter of hours, the mold had established refined tunnels and trails between oat flakes, while less efficient trails faded away. What was left after a day was a sprawling web that looked practically identical to the Tokyo subway system.

What took humanity centuries to perfect took a slime mold a matter of hours. It can learn, remember, solve problems, and make decisions – but it has no central nervous system. There is so much to learn from slime mold – lessons about collective action and operation, and seeing ourselves as small parts of a single, multicellular organism, grasping together for the most efficient path forward. Our ideas of human exceptionalism are crumbling these days – it’s clear that we are no more separate from nature than the fungi that will one day churn us back into the soil, and we are not invincible to the whims of the larger biogeophysical world. We are a network of like-minded beings, all grasping for stability and balance, following one another down worn down trails with the hopes that one of us might know where we’re going. After a long time and a few false starts, I believe we’ll get there.

In learning about fungi, I have learned that humans are not unique in their ability to communicate and organize collectively. Indeed – animals are not unique in this capacity. Rather, the ability to exist both as an individual and a member of the collective is ingrained in the biology of most living beings on our spaceship earth, and even the trees themselves have the ability to communicate, take care of their own, and defend themselves from threats. Once again, this special power lies in fungi. Mycorrhizal networks (or, as they’ve affectionately come to be known, the wood-wide web) connect networks of trees, allow for the dispersal of nutrients, and in the event of a biological threat, can communicate to other members of the stand to put up their defenses. These mycorrhizal networks are essential in combating climate change, and the relationships trees forge with a particular root fungi, called ectomycorrhizal fungi, help trees absorb CO2 even faster. These fungi also slow down decomposition, keeping carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere for longer. However, as we continue to damage our forests, these fungi are disappearing, and the amount of carbon stored in the soil is decreasing. Hope isn’t lost, though – as we continue to shift to renewables, fight nitrogen pollution, and pay more attention to forest restoration, ectomycorrhizal forests are likely to return, and continue to capture and store carbon. Across this subterranean network, relationships are being forged, knowledge is being shared, and resources are competed over. There is a dialogue happening underneath our toes, in the fungal underbelly of the forest few of us have stopped to consider.

I take a lot of comfort in fungus. It is slow, silent, and knows what it’s doing. More than we can understand, there is a sense of community and collective action in fungi that I aspire to emulate in the ways I engage with other humans, the rest of our multicellular community. I believe it’s a skill we all must learn a little more about. If we fail to learn – if this grand human experiment fails, and we fall, fading, into the cool moist soil – then I trust the fungi residing there to do what they think is best with us, and am hopeful that, if nothing else, we will make good fertilizer for what is to come next.

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