To boldly go where no fungus has gone before
“Some people think I’m a mycological heretic, some people think I’m a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I’m crazy.” Paul Stamets, Mycologist (Fungus expert)
For any Star Trek: Discovery fans out there, the name Paul Stamets may sound familiar. The Chief Engineer of the USS Discovery is named for the real-life mycologist, whose work inspired the makers of Star Trek to create the mycelium (i.e. fungal) spore drive – a way to travel huge distances across space in the blink of an eye.
Astromycology, or the study of fungi in space, is a thing. But it has not been adapted for space flight. Yet. Star Trek has a long history of inventing things that scientists and engineers later bring to life: voice activated computers, touch-screen technology, video calls. Perhaps one day we will cross the galaxy through the power of fungi.
Fungi are long overdue some positive PR. They are crucial to a healthy ecosystem, and yet we know less about them than we do plants on earth. In fact, fungi have more in common with animals than they do plants, and are technically a kingdom in their own right: flora, fauna and fungi!
In modern sci fi, fungi often appear as part of future innovation by humans living in space. For example, in James S A Corey’s epic series, The Expanse, Detective Miller lives off beans and bourbon made from fungi. However, in the books and tv show fungi are also an ever-present danger to space stations, as they can affect air and water filtration systems with potentially disastrous consequences.
This isn’t so far-fetched. In a 2015 paper in the Harvard Science Review, called Astromycology: The ‘Fungal’ Frontier, Tristan Wang explains, “During its orbit as the first modular space station, the satellite Mir experienced attacks from the least suspect extraterrestrial life form: mold” (a form of fungus), which gradually ate away the hull’s interior.
As a food source, fungi are already doing well: the global market for edible mushrooms is estimated to be worth US$42 billion per year. However there is more at stake than alternatives to meat.
At the State of the World’s Fungi Symposium, held at Kew Gardens earlier this year, one mycologist described the potential of using fungi to break down plastic. There are fabrics being produced using fungal products. We already rely on fungi for various medicines, including Penicillin. In his 2008 TED talk, Stamets outlines 6 ways fungi can save the world:
Despite all this, in the UK the numbers of people becoming professional mycologists has experienced a decline over the last 20 years, which means many mycologists are nearing retirement. And yet it is estimated that over 93% of fungal species are currently unknown to science!
With all this potential, Grow Wild wants more people across the UK to be fascinated by fungi. There’s a next generation of mycologists out there. We’re sure of it.