elPhoto by Pree Bissessur on Unsplash

Fungi 101: Shrooms, Social Issues & Symbiosis

As we eat them, stir them into ceremonial elixirs, and cultivate them — so they spread and prosper. We benefit through delicious foods, healing medicines, and mind-expansion. They benefit when we spread their spores.

The relationship between man and mushroom may seem peripheral, but the more we explore fungi and human history, the more human-fungi symbiosis reveals itself as a cornerstone of society.

There is evidence we used fungi as fire-starters, but their best purpose may have been conversation starters.

Shaman and Scientists

Science requires randomized, controlled trials before concluding fungi are good for us. Meanwhile, fungi are mushrooming (pun intended) as a hot online topic. Always treasured, mushrooms are poised to become a huge medicinal industry as approved FDA treatment.

Cultural menders, shamans, and healers of the past know how to tell a poisonous mushroom from a medicinal one. Modern western science is still catching up on shroom power, however. The reasons for the slow start by western science are culturally and legally complex, entangled with our tendency to underestimate the natural world, and a result of draconian — and recenr — anti-drug laws.

Whatever the cause, we think we know fungi — but we’ve barely scratched their spongy surface.

As scientists burrow into the magical properties of mushrooms and the larger fungi world, we can rely on a robust history of religious ceremony, folklore, cuisine, art, music and medicine to open those creaky doors of perception into a long and fascinating narrative arc: the story of the cultural and social human-fungi bond.

Mummies Don’t Lie

In 1991 a mummified iceman named Otzi was discovered. He carried with him several fungi. It is speculated that early humans used mushrooms for their hallucinatory, medicinal, and fire-starting properties. Otzi, who lived between 3100 and 3400 BCE, was carrying F. Fomentarius in his belongings. This inedible species carries the name “foment” which refers to tinder.

The first written record of mushroom use is from a Chinese doctor’s manual in the 29th century (BCE). In Asian culture, mushrooms have been harvested and cultivated as remedies for immune support, heart health, and as aphrodisiacs — to name a few.

In France, the famous black truffle is a culinary delicacy while Finland prizes the Chaga species for its antioxidant properties.

Recent research shows active compounds in a variety of mushrooms support immune health, lowering cholesterol, and stabilizing blood sugar.

Fungi Defined

Biologists assert that fungi have more in common with animals than plants.

Fungi, unlike plants, cannot use chlorophyll. They also carry chitin — a polysaccharide that forms the rigid shells of crustaceans and insects — in their cell walls. Fungi store glycogen for energy use, as do animals.

Encompassing an array of familiar organisms, common fungi include:

· mushrooms

· lichen

· molds

· plant pathogens

· mildews

· yeasts

Shamans, Pagans and Christians

In his classic but controversial work, Food of the Gods, anthropologist Terence McKenna proposed that use of psilocybin was common among ancient peoples, then went one step further. Dr. McKenna claimed magic mushrooms were the catalyst for the (still unexplained) evolutionary leap in human brain size.

McKenna’s theory was heavy on speculation and light on anthropological evidence, but even skeptics acknowledge the important role of psychedelic substances in human creativity.

Early humans passed down knowledge about what was safe to consume and what could kill, as well as which mushrooms were best used for remedies. We have lost some of that wisdom, however, just as we’ve lost hunter-gatherer cultures and languages.

Photo by Presetbase Lightroom Presets on Unsplash

The wisdom of shamans and herbalists is nebulous due to relentless persecution of folk healers (also known by their more pejorative names: witches and sorcerers) following the rise of Christianity, as well as unscientific collection and cataloguing methods.

What do we still have to learn about fungi? Let’s explore what we already know — or think we know — then take a look at this kingdom’s vast potential.

The Fifth Kingdom

Aristotle was the first westerner to classify fungi as a plant, but the groundbreaking work of Carl Linnaeus in 1735 led to contemporary biological classifications of “life” that eventually recategorized fungi.

Linnaeus proposed the now familiar system of kingdom, class, order, genus, and species (a bit, later “phylum” and “family” were added; in 1990 “domain” took one rank higher than “kingdom”).

Early scientists used behavior and appearance for biological classification, but the advent of RNA in the 1970s shifted the classification schema to gene comparison at the molecular level.

As the old “animal-vegetable-mineral” kingdoms of the world gave way to theories of four, five, six, and today, eight kingdoms, fungi found their own place as the “fifth” kingdom — fittingly, at the height of the psychedelic cultural paradigm in 1969.

Biologists concurred: fungi were neither plant nor animal but their own kingdom.

Human-Fungi Symbiosis

The social human-fungi symbiosis runs parallel to ecological and biological symbiosis.

As we explore microscopic worlds in greater depth, we are discovering that the human body is colonized of billions of bacteria and substantial fungal systems. In humans, bacterial colonies are so enormous they outnumber our cells, begging the question — are we mostly made up of a non-human substance? What are we, if we are primarily comprised of other life forms?

Fungi, although not as overwhelming in sheer numbers as bacteria, are a similar ‘alien’ life form that resides within our bodies.

Understanding the nature of biological symbiosis helps frame our long love affair with mushrooms. Here we review the biological definition of symbiosis, how it plays out in the natural world, and two recent technological breakthroughs that could capitalize on our biological symbiosis and harness mushroom power.

How Fungi Symbiosis Works

Symbiosis carries a connotation of “mutually beneficial” but this is a limited definition. Both biological and social symbiosis play out unevenly, with one partner sometimes gaining the advantage.

Insects, for example, are both dependent on fungi, and the unfortunate victims of its deadly spread. The reason we have cordyceps (the “Emperor’s mushroom”) is because of its symbiotic but parasitic relationship with the ghost moth caterpillar, which the fungus devours in order to grow.

Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

Commensalisms and Mutualisms

Parasitism is well known, while the two other types of symbiosis are less discussed. A symbiotic relationship that helps one partner but has no effect on the other is termed “commensalism”. Balanced symbiotic relationships — the kind we think of when we hear the term “symbiotic” — are “mutualisms”.

In humans, the star commensalism is candida albicans, a widespread human yeast that is usually harmless. In rare cases what is commonly known as “candida” can shift from commensalist to parasitic.

Ruminants like cows and horses benefit from mutualistic fungi that stabilize and balance digestion in their multiple stomachs. Humans, too, have an ongoing, complex relationship with fungi that lives in the gut. Research on the human-bacteria gut connection is gaining more attention, as scientists delve into how gut fungi differ from gut bacteria.

The Ingenuous Leafcutter Ants

A striking example of a fungi symbiosis that benefits both parties is the case of much studied leafcutter ant (genuses Atta and Acromyrmex). Forty seven ant species thrive from the tip of South America into the southwestern United States, and they farm a fungus for both food and housing.

Leafcutters are often seen marching in a parade as they transport leaves back to their colony. Logic would dictate that the ants eat the leaves, but the leafcutters instead pulverize their leafy harvest and feed the mush to a growing, underground “fungus garden” that provides sustenance to workers, queen and young alike.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

When the next generation of queen ants fly in order to mate, they carry with them a tiny piece of the fungus in their mouths, and, once fertilized, begin their own fungus garden with a new colony. The fungus spreads and the leafcutters are sustained.

The Darker Side of Symbiosis: Caterpillar Zombies

A popular aphrodisiac, cordyceps is cultivated from caterpillars infected with a parasitic fungus. Called “Himalayan Gold” since it is found in abundance in the western Himalayan mountains of Tibet, this fungi is collected by armies of local villagers each season. The fungus grows underground, so cordyceps needs to be dug up.

Cordyceps made the news for allegedly helping Chinese female long distance runners dominate the sport with astonishing world-records in 3,000 and 10,000 meter races in 1993 at the World Track and Field Championships.

The cordyceps sinensis finds a home inside the ghost moth caterpillar, before consuming its host and emerging from its head. This results in a small, slender fungus no larger than a cigarette. Markets sell cordyceps or “yarsta gunbu” for $50,000 per pound. (Shiitake mushrooms typically cost about $8 per pound; black truffles, $900 to $3,000 per pound).

Human Parasitic Fungi

Humans can carry parasitic fungi that are known for their tenacious ability to resist treatment. The most common examples are athlete’s foot and toenail fungus. These types of fungal infections are usually difficult eradicate, even after years of treatment.

The widespread “jock itch” is another classic case of one partner in symbiosis benefitting — the fungus — while the host suffers.

Fungi and the Human Gut

From mood disorders to obesity, gut health is a hot topic with potential to revolutionize medical treatment, especially autoimmune conditions. Medical science knows far less about gut fungi than gut bacteria, but new technology is changing that.

Advancements in microorganism identification such as Next Generation Sequencing(NGS), the mapping of the human genome, and improvements in surgical procedures like fecal transplantation (an effective treatment for chronic digestive issues such as c. difficile infection), have advanced knowledge about the connection between overall health and a thriving gut microbiome.

Until recently, fungi have been assumed to play a minor role in gut health. Fungi represent only a tenth to a hundredth (0.10 to 0.010) of total genetic material gathered from intestinal mucosa stool samples.

Scientists who have begun comparatively recent investigations on gut mycobiota (the “mycobiome”) are benefitting from advancements in NGS that makes cultivating gut fungi for samples far easier. At this early stage in studying human-fungi gut symbiosis, however, there is no consensus on the elements of a healthy human mycobiome.

Literal Mushroom Power

The common button mushroom has recently produced electricity. The first bionic architecture is the result of producing a 3D cyanobacterial cell structure with a geometry so densely packed it resembles “bionic” collective behavior. Using nanotechnology, a button (white) mushroom, and a clever experimental design, the first fungi to produce electricity has arrived.

Engineers built nanoribbons (basically, a mesh surrounding the mushroom cap) as a functional nanomaterial to effectively interact with a living system (the fungus) to generate electrical current.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

In short, the first engineered symbiotic relationship was created between a fungus (mushroom) and a bacteria. This field of study is called bacterial nanobionics.

Finding Fungi in Folklore, Music and Arts

Music and arts have benefitted from mushrooms at least as long as medicine has. While exploration of biological symbiosis is poised to lead to breakthroughs in medical treatments, the broader human-fungi social symbiosis is arguably even more compelling.

We use them as socially lubricating drugs. We’ve catalogued vast numbers of edible species. We dry, grind and bottle them for health and vitality. We draw and paint them as shelters, signposts, and foods. The shroom has inspired whole musical genres.

Mushrooms also appear in surprising ways in our folk traditions, from witchcraft to Santa Claus.

The human-fungi cultural symbiotic partnership is complex. They are literally part of us, living in our guts, but also part of our ecosystem and a cultural tool that has driven inspiration and visions around the world. Religious ceremonies, art, folklore, and music are replete with realistic images and symbolic representations of the sacred mushroom.

Mushroom Power Has Early, Deep Roots

Paleontological and archaeological evidence shows humans using psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) from as early as 7,000 BCE, based on evidence in Algerian rock carvings.

Fungi has been on this planet for at least two billion years.

Research shows that prehistoric mushrooms grew to heights of thirty feet prior to the age of trees. Perhaps this pre-human landscape has been passed down to us in our collective unconscious and DNA, since mystical art often depicts giant mushrooms.

On the Menu

Why do we cherish mushrooms, knowing most species will poison us? Not only are some varieties deadly, but it is a slow, gruesome death.

Mushrooms include more than 1,000 known species, but fewer than one in ten are edible.

Even wholly edible varieties aren’t always obvious at first glance, yet humans pay a hefty price for gourmet varieties such as black truffles, hen-of-the-woods, and shiitake. Perhaps you have heard that even edible ‘shrooms should always be cooked, as they can cause digestive problems for some people when served raw.

Lately, the expanding market for edible mushrooms has introduced us to dried mushroom powder. These mushroom powders are used in medicinal elixirs, coffee, and tea.

We treat edible mushrooms with considerable reverence. Could it be because they are both food and medicine? Do they offer nutrients we cannot find in any other form? Or, are they treasured for their rarity or use by high-status individuals, such as medicine men?

These are questions that naturally sprout up: surely they must possess magical culinary and nutritional qualities based on our obsessive desire for them.

A recent study of European paintings indicates that in about ten percent of paintings showing fruits and vegetables, mushrooms appear. The varieties are edible, and a few paintings even depict the amanita muscaria (bright red and white) species — which was used primarily for hallucinating but which could easily kill. Edible amanita mushroom species were coveted by the Romans and often show up in Italian art.

European art shows edible mushrooms almost exclusively, perhaps because interspersing dangerous mushrooms in a painting might have confused people as to what was edible and what wasn’t.

A Powerful, Rare Gem

Some foods, herbs, and beans have been so important in human society as to become literal currency. Like cacao beans in pre-colonial Mayan culture and tobacco in colonial America, mushrooms have been treasured by the wealthy and powerful.

Cordyceps sinensis is called “The Emperor’s Mushroom” because it was traditionally collected only for the royal family. Their rarity made them precious, and this prized species were preserved for the Chinese Emperor and those living within the walls of the Imperial City.

Perhaps the high price of hard-to-find mushrooms is merely a result of their rarity or elusiveness. Like gold, rare mushrooms may hold a near-sacred status because finding them requires years of knowledge, a lifetime of patience, meticulous examination, and — in some cases — digging through the earth.

Magic Shrooms as a Recreational Drug

The shiitakes on your supermarket shelf, the portobello burger, and that bottle of Reishi tablets for heart health are all legal and non-controversial. These mushrooms don’t alter minds, and are safe according to strict government regulations.

Mushroom species containing psilocybin, however, are a different story. Over 200 “magic mushroom” species contain this active hallucinatory compound.

In pre-Christian cultures where wild mushrooms were gathered, psilocybin was a central part of religious ceremonies. But in the United States, psychedelic mushrooms sunk into disrepute in the mid-1960s — shortly after Harvard University cut off funding in 1963 for psilocybin and prison reform research led by Drs. Timothy Leary, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) and Ralph Metzger.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

The war on drugs has had multiple casualties, and some would say hallucinogenic mushrooms were one. Fortunately, the profound benefits of marijuana as medicine have nursed the wounded “magic mushroom” back from its drug war injuries.

Nixon’s War is Over: Marijuana (and Hippies) Won

Psilocybin research entered a dark period before its recent revival at the dawn of the 21st century.

Richard Nixon led a conservative federal government that developed the Drug Schedule. They classified heroin, marijuana and all hallucinogenic drugs as “Schedule I” — the most addictive and most dangerous drugs to humans. Some say Nixon was fighting a war on hippies and African-Americans, and marijuana and psychedelic drugs got caught in the crossfire.

As US federal drug policy has shifted its position on the dangers of marijuana, the hallucinogens are now beginning to emerge, slowly, from the dim shadows cast by the Drug Schedule. Researchers who once risked jail time are now studying psilocybin’s potential to create a new spectrum of medicines.

Psilocybin could become reclassified with sleep aids and other, less legally problematic drugs under Schedule IV. It would still be illicit, but those caught carrying could avoid arrest and jail time. More importantly, researchers can obtain psilocybin more readily.

Clinical trials are underway at multiple universities to prove the efficacy of hallucinogens as medicine with non-addictive profiles, safe for moderate consumption. Psilocybin leads the way as a compound known to be safe and easily administered. In fact, Dr. Leary and his Harvard colleagues proved decades ago that prison recidivism could be reduced after controlled psilocybin dosing.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently (August, 2018) given the go-ahead for quick approval “breakthrough” status to conduct phase II studies on psilocybin and depression at COMPASS pathways research group.

The Symbiont Spore in Art, Story and Music

Fungi in music and the arts is great PR for them, and symbiosis in action. We preserve them, cultivate them and spread the word — thus benefiting their propagation and sustainability. Mushrooms are often used as symbols, with limited awareness of the scope of their true social power.

We flash symbols such as hearts, the middle finger, and even gang signs to communicate feelings and ideas. The most recent iteration? Emoji’s. This symbolic language is arguably the first universal form of communication in human history.

If it seems amazing that a symbol could make someone tear up, consider those willing to die for their country’s flag.

Mushrooms are an enduring and ubiquitous symbol of power, fertility, shelter, joy and — rarely — danger.

Our socially symbiotic relationship with fungi shows up in the “sheltering mushroom cap” or “spreading fungus.” A prime example is the towering, plump, red-and-white polka-dotted mushroom, under which a relaxed figure lounges.

Despite a potential danger as poisons, we rarely see mushrooms depicted as fear-inducing or dangerous. They tend to make appearances in happy, joyful, fecund scenes.

Santa Claus Was Probably a Mushroom

Amanita Muscaria (A. Muscaria) is a famous bright red and white-speckled mushroom. With a pure, bone-white stem, A. Muscaria is also a hallucinogen that should be approached and handled with intention and care.

From at least the 1600s, Siberian shaman have collected this shroom to induce visions and gifted them during winter solstice.

Sometimes, the shamans would dress like the mushrooms: in red and white, with a cap.

The shamans imitated A. Muscaria, communed with reindeer as spirit animals and collected this hallucinogenic fungus from the base of pine trees. Due to high drifts of snow, these shaman would sometimes enter houses, dressed like red and white mushrooms, through the “smoke hole” (chimneys) to leave A. Muscaria as gifts.

The details of A. Muscaria in Siberia help explain some of the bizarre — indeed, hallucinatory — aspects of the Santa Claus legend. While we cannot prove that Santa Claus is the result of a mushroom-fueled trip, it’s one of the more compelling narratives for the otherworldly elements of a merry, costumed, gift-wielding midwinter benefactor.

Shelter and Fertility

Why do mushrooms loom above us as protectors, often gracing artwork as huge structures that shield people or animals from natural forces?

The likely reason is because mushshrooms provide so many benefits to humans. Naturally, we see them as benefactors that both connect us to the natural world and protect us from its harsher elements.

Mushrooms often sprout up in artwork to indicate growth, abundance and fertility. This is unsurprising, since fungi are most obvious after springtime rains. Drawn as friendly and colorful, they often appear in romantic images either nestled in forests or as a series of roofs in treeless meadows.

Practicing Magic

Mushrooms adorn paintings and drawings as powerful weapons for wizards and sorcerers, symbolizing the connection between witchcraft and cryptic knowledge of the natural world of fungi. In European folklore, drawings of witches may include their animal and fungal companions: a black cat and basket of mushrooms.

Baba Yaga, the famous and ubiquitous Slavic witch, was known for communing with mushrooms.

Our symbiosis with fungi and approval of mushrooms helps bridge a lost connection: our reliance on herbalists and witches as healers.

Christianity has persecuted witches, and with them denigrated the natural world as something to be feared, conquered, and exploited. But as we witness a resurgence in mushroom popularity, the wisdom of folk healers and witches may be resurrected and recontextualized.

Once community leaders, tribal doctors and witches have been relegated to less important roles as the rise of pharmaceuticals and drug laws have pushed them to the margins.

Can we learn to portray theses people, who have a deep understanding of the magical benefits that come from merging with fungi, more realistically?

The Musical Shroom

The ultimate communion with peace and presence is found in music, and mushrooms have a strong musical connection, especially during the 60s and 70s flower power decades.

The famous Jefferson Airplane psychedelic anthem “White Rabbit” makes explicit reference to tripping:

When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go / and you’ve just had some kind of mushroom and your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know.

Music is also used with psilocybin to extend positive feelings during a psychedelic “trip.” Michael Pollan, bestselling author of How to Change Your Mind, notes that music heard during a psilocybin trip can become more meaningful, and bring back positive feelings associated with the altered state.

A Paradigm Shifts Sprouts in the New Century

Paradigm shifts can be a blur when you are inside one, but as we see mushroom articles, products and research explode, the 21st century shift comes into sharper focus.

Researchers are studying mushrooms for cancer-fighting compounds and treatments for mood disorders. Major research institutions are funding trials to understand optimal uses for psilocybin as a treatment for depression, anxiety and pain. Recent research shows that psilocybin dosing can dramatically alter and improve mood.

Phase III clinical trials at Johns Hopkins University evaluating existing research on psilocybin safety and abuse may show the drug is not a risk for addiction. This research could mean the FDA will approve treatments in the next five years.

And as peer-reviewed publications mount, the veil of the mystical, magic mushroom is lifted a little higher.

Fungi Is Winning Over the Masses

Meanwhile, websites for ordering mushroom supplements are spreading like spores flying after a summer rainstorm.

Reishi, lion’s mane, enoki, cordyceps, shiitake and maitake are all popular in traditional Asian medicine, and as the web shares its collective knowledge, medicinal species become better known and more widely used worldwide.

In 2017, sales of mushrooms reached a peak, with average consumer consumption of five kilograms per year.

Mushrooms are becoming wildly popular as we hurl towards 2020. Why now?

First, the Schedule I drugs are not the danger society thought they were and, in fact, evidence is mounting that may radically alter the treatment of mood disorders with magic mushroom therapy.

Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

Second, our medical research is leaping forward on many fronts, from mapping the human genome to developing nanotechnology and 3D devices. Other quantum jumps, like Artificial Intelligence (AI), will transform our ability to understand the natural world and this will include using fungi’s unique and powerful properties to benefit humanity.

Third, the environmental crisis is birthing generations who want to connect to the earth. Generation Z has many reasons to cultivate scientific wisdom, particularly when it comes to exotic or threatened species.

And, finally, our symbiosis compels us to explore the relationship we have with fungi for our health. For example, the presence of two potent antioxidants — glutathione and ergothioneine — suggest possibilities for protection against Alzheimer’s disease and even life extension.

Timothy Leary Is Not Dead

There are myriad ways to use the mushrooms thriving in forests and blanketing meadows to improve your life.

Education, conservation and sharing are a great start. Educate yourself by reading about them, using them as food, and sharing your knowledge. Pass on what you know to the children in your life. Conserve by joining your local mycology society, or contributing to natural preserves (like National Parks) where mushrooms grow in abundance.

Eat them, even by adding a few shiitakes to your stir fry.

If you are an artist, paint mushrooms, photograph them, or use them as inspiration for music.

If you see fungi as a tool for self-knowledge, like Timothy Leary you might work to help legalize and legitimize psilocybin for its benefits.

As we continue to unearth the magical, medicinal energies of the mushroom to help us understand ourselves, we can recall Dr. Leary’s words:

The twentieth century may well find historical status as the epoch in which man began to study himself as a scientific phenomenon.




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Jean Campbell

Jean Campbell

Writer by day, reader by night, napper by afternoon.

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