How I learned to think like a mushroom
We need fungal solutions to pollution, pandemics, and starvation, says Tradd Cotter, a microbiologist and professional mycologist
I have been studying mushrooms, inside and out, macroscopically and microscopically, for the past 22 years. At times I imagine myself deep into their chemical consciousness to figure out what they are thinking and what they are experiencing. Why? To gain a higher understanding of their individual needs on a species by species basis. I know this sounds strange, and, trust me, on occasion I look in the mirror for signs of gills emerging from my neck or a Cordyceps mushroom sprouting from the back of my head like a possessed ant, as I near the final stages of my personalized mushroom infection.
Now, you don’t need to go to these extremes to be a good mushroom grower. But, who wants to be good? Greatness is committing one step higher and at a level that can make the impossible a reality. That’s what I attempt to teach folks in my new book, Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation.
Fungi, with their branching fungal filaments called hyphae (collectively called mycelium), are constantly sampling their environment’s chemical properties, using specialized cell tips that can read the composition of a substance like a laboratory liquid chromatographer. These rapid tests signals the mycelium to adjust its internal assembly lines, shifting genetic expression, to manufacture whatever it needs to overcome, or succeed in this newly sampled environment, or in many instances, when it encounters a competitor or pathogen competing with its territory. This interface environment is where the magic happens, and this is where I try to place myself—deep into the matrix to gain a better understanding of these interactions between fungi and their immediate environments.
You are probably right in guessing that I don’t watch TV much, or pay for cable, as these mushroom cultures are my preferred entertainment, setting up bacterial and fungal galleries on petri plates, constructing microbial gladiator matches to watch, learn, and gain a deeper understanding of how these organisms react so quickly, and most importantly efficiently, to changes in their environment. This has to be the lesson that resonates with my personality the most, the will or need to foresee my path and pave my way safely through life the best I can, with minimal injury and creating opportunities.
Meet Your New Mentor - Mushrooms
The availability of online information has helped make for easy searching, however much of the online sources for cultivation and mushroom identification are inaccurate, and anyone can post or blog about their projects.
Scanning through a few popular sites I see the struggles and mistakes, the misleading information perpetuated amongst the public body of knowledge thirsty for solutions. I admit that I started in the same place, except with little to no Internet content in the early 1990s and with the only access to good mushroom cultivation information being in the back of a High Times magazine. For $3 you received a few Xerox copies and hand drawings of spore isolations. Even though books were available on cultivation, they weren’t enough to feed my need to succeed. Failure after failure, contamination winning the race, I saw that I had a great future in growing molds and no mushrooms, until one day I spotted a tiny mushroom growing in one of my jars, and everything changed forever. That little mushroom must have known I was on the edge of giving up, maybe it felt sorry for me, as if to wave a flag telling me to not leave a friend behind, and focus on this one little mushroom. I finally failed forward, and loved it.
Tradd Cotter's Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced and Experimental Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation is available from Amazon.
Nothing has changed in 22 years except I know where to start approximately with every mushroom I find to minimize failure, but often the rules are not the same for every species, so again I have to deal with plate after plate, or jars of small adjustments to find the correct combination to unlock the growing parameters of each species. And, it takes a long time. My degree of error is now extremely low, as I have progressed to a new clean room and high tech lab gear, but I have also learned how to calculate risk when trying something new, strategizing a winning outcome rather than rolling the dice blindly. Though, on occasion, I’ll surrender to the serendipitous forces of the universe and just lob a “Hail Mary” into the end zone with extra cultures, bags, or plates lying around just to see what happens. This to me is an interesting way to pick up some accidental and also innovative solutions or discoveries without spending too much formal planning or thought on the projects, and gleaning the rewards of accidental invention in process. A lesson learned here? Patience and empathy, something the world could use a little more of, so start thinking like a mushroom, become opportunistic and seize this moment. Create something that can change the world, one mushroom at a time.
Mushrooms and Man: Soul Mates for Life
The balance of nature is offset by human intervention that has not yet learned consequence, despite repeated warnings, and each mode of environmental damage compounds and overlaps into new problems.
Credit: Mark Jones from Sharondale Farm
Pollution can create illnesses and starvation, which creates dynamics in world power; regions of starvation and illness are breeding grounds for viruses and other pathogens to mutate and host jump—a vicious circle that needs to be stopped. However, as I point out in my book Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, there are solutions that anyone can put into motion, regardless of academic or physical skill, making it a valuable tool in reversing global issues. These powerful forces, many natural and several man-made, challenge our survival as a civilization and species. I feel a systemic connection to the planet, one that keeps me up at night wondering how to fix it, one problem at a time, but it is impossible to do alone. I have tried to compile this book to help create conversation, collaboration, and creativity to evolve collectively. When an ecosystem is sick, the organisms that inhabit that ecosystem are also sick, fall ill, and perish. A small pond is no different than the planet as a whole, just a small model that we can watch and observe all of the inputs and outputs. But where do we get the strength and power, or skillsets to reverse the flow of negativity on the planet? To put these problems back where they belong and create definitive solutions and not “quick-fix” ideas that merely patch the holes.
If we aren’t afraid to take the first step and learn something new, such as cloning mushrooms with cardboard, or cultivating mushrooms on some organic matter collected during a cleanup effort, then we can demonstrate a proof of concept that empowers everyone to expand this skill to a higher level.
The Open Source for Fungal Solutions is Finally Here
A feeling of true empowerment doesn’t come along very often, and the world seems to limit the power to a select few. To make matters even more unbalanced, the leaders of particular industries often keep their industry and trade secrets close to home, which limits the spread of knowledge to the general public. The mushroom industry is no different, with the massive mega farms in Pennsylvania, California, and Tennessee dominating the playing field, and thus driving the prices as low into the ground as possible to make competition difficult. These few farms account for more than 80 percent of all cultivated mushrooms in the United States. However, most of them employ expensive composting technology that most growers cannot afford to become competitive, and many rely on conventional pesticides to ensure that their yields are consistent and appear flawless to the consumers. Some even use banned fungicides with a “special needs” permit through the EPA, claiming that they would not be able to grow mushrooms without it.
When you see, or tour, a farm of this design and magnitude it can seem daunting, and understandably overwhelming when you start to think about setting up a farm to compete with this type of efficiency and volume. But that is your advantage, not to compete as a conventional farm, rather to compete at a localized level producing high quality, organic mushrooms which are grown naturally and command a much higher market price than high volume farms. There is no comparison to the mushrooms you are able to cultivate and mushrooms shipped in from 1000 miles away, and consumers know it.
In my book Organic Mushroom and Mycoremediation I provide readers with as much information as possible, distilling it into a language that is easy to follow and, more importantly, enable you to act upon it. Removing the feel and fear of academic or complicated guides, the reader should be able to convince themselves to grow mushrooms successfully without the use of complicated machines or making large investments to get started, and learning how to add layers to their experience and skill level as they progress. Once the reader understands how mushrooms feed and fruit, the book offers a buffet of do-it-yourself projects and ideas that I hope will fuel a pattern of citizen science that can contribute back to the good of everyone. I encourage anyone reading the book to share their discoveries, protect them if need be, but share the concepts with the world so that all may benefit from using them at home or on a small scale. In turn, these concepts will pay forward and return our intellectual property investments by way of public domain solutions—ones that should never be owned or shelved. If everyone knew how to cultivate mushrooms on paper and cardboard, especially in remote or devastated locations, the solutions to suffering from global starvation would go from a pipedream to a reality. It just needs ground troops like you to carry this mission forward.
The “Hidden Power” of Fungi and Medicinal Mushrooms of the Future
What happens when you raise a wild animal in captivity for several years, pet and spoon feed it, then return it back to the African savannah? Probably not a happy ending for a zebra or gazelle trying to make friends with the lions! So what lesson can be learned here in regards to cultivating mushrooms?
I am a huge supporter of cultivating native mushrooms for many reasons. The most important reason is the genetic quality of the mycelium specific to your region matches much of your available raw materials and it has adapted to the climate, just like you.
The difference between large, factory produced mushrooms and those cultured and grown at home are very different. There is a higher degree of quality when one is able to control the precise growing conditions and environment when cultivating on a small scale, ensuring that a mushroom is properly cared for as it manufactures all of the goodness you will harvest later. As mushrooms grow, the mycelium divides as it colonizes, and every cell is making a replicate over and over again. When you photocopy an original document, then make a copy of the copy, and so forth, the quality begins to show. It is no different with mushroom mycelium, where the dividing cells are consuming the same growing substrate and “become bored” or accustomed to the media and start to lose genetic variability or expression, to make certain compounds that they don’t need. It is possible that when you over divide the mycelium at some point it may show no interest in fruiting at all! I am convinced fungi have ADD (attention deficit disorder) for a very good reason, and it is an evolutionary advantage, so maybe we should let the kids daydream a little and put the Prozac away.
Credit: Mark Jones from Sharondale Farm
In my experience and opinion, keeping mushroom cultures closest to their wild isolates is the best way of preserving these unique characteristics, such as mushrooms high in protein or vitamin D, to keep manufacturing these compounds and teaching them not to degenerate as they grow. Our farm uses just five transfers from the original isolate, while at industrial farms it is not uncommon to be using the 20th generation of transfers for the final expansion onto growing substrate, which is a long way from home for the mycelium. Most colleges, universities, and businesses cultivating organisms for research and for industry, such as producing Penicillin for example, use stock cultures of known potency and must maintain finite numbers of backups in preservation for expansion. The cultures, much like plants, are grown in monoculture, large bioreactors or fermenters on a nutrient source and harvested when the cells are ready. The organism is grown with one end product in sight. The way my lab works is much different, treating cultures more like a workout gym or Olympic center to train and challenge the organism into making new compounds never before created, without genetically modifying them. This tactic has been proven effective in practice, and now on its way to unlocking the “hidden power” of fungi. How does understanding this phenomenon benefit humanity? By creating a paradigm shift in treating disease with personalized medicinal solutions.
For example, anyone contracting strep throat typically receives a throat culture, swabbed and its identity verified on selective media to determine which of the few antibiotics are in circulation or available on the market that are effective. The problem is that all bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant, at the rapid tune of three to five years after a product arrives on the market (after a twenty-year FDA approval and experimental process that could cost $200 million per drug). It’s easy to who is winning the race—the microbes. The only way to get around the broad, herd-based antibiotics is to stop treating humans and animals like heads of cattle, and use specialized, or individual supplements produced by fungi capable of manufacturing the compounds exclusively for that very host organism, be it a goat, dog, or human. This type of shift is also called a disruptive technology.
In the future I see a new breed of medical facilities, where a throat culture is dosed into fungal modules that sweat the metabolites into a powdering or liquid gelling process, and in 24 hours you’d have personalized medicine in a form that is not regulated by the FDA or, alternately, pharmaceutical companies, which purify or genetically alter their organisms. Not only can these compounds synthesized by fungi naturally on a case-by-case basis vary in their molecular chemistry, they are extremely complex and naturally calibrated levels of antibiotic cocktails, tailored exclusively for this particular infection, and even better, compatible to your specific ecotype. A DNA matched antibiotic cocktail? Why not, I dream a little right? I don’t think anything is impossible if you ask nature for solutions. If there is one thing I know, it’s that the bacteria and viruses are gaining ground, and we need other options and solutions to survive and heal this planet.
The planet needs a Spring Cleaning, NOW, using Mushrooms
As dynamic as the planet seems, with her self-balancing mechanisms to offset disruptions, we are just too damaging as a species for the Earth to keep cleaning up after us.
Getting closer to a tipping point is not my idea of a sustainable civilization. Lucky for us, recent discoveries have found that mushrooms are well suited for this challenge to help us, but we must be able to understand how they help us to apply them in a way that makes them succeed. These solutions range in difficulty from a small puddle of herbicides spilled at home to an EPA superfund site, yet the basic principles are no different and can be learned and applied by anyone immediately.
The limiting factor in cleaning pollution with fungi, or mycoremediation, is the availability of the biomass, or volume of mycelium from a particular mushroom, that is typically created by cultivation. Farmers and small-scale growers now have the ability to expand mycelium and use it with the intention of using the waste to solve an environmental problem in their region. What is missing is the identification of these localized problems and connecting the administrations that oversee the pilot programs with groups that can collect data from specific sites and create small models that can then be scaled up to larger projects. Homeowners and farmers should not preclude themselves from becoming involved, as this participation collectively can generate a considerable amount of biomass needed for these larger projects. Creating a mycological task force in your area can create the momentum needed to fix many environmental projects sitting and waiting for someone to take action. The grant money is there, in most areas of the United States, to fund projects just like these. They just need leadership to educate the committees, file a plan of action, and to release the funds to fuel a small wave of mycelium in your area. This is why open source mushroom cultivation and experimentation is so important to the future of mankind on the planet. Every so often in history there is a paradigm shift from a normal theater of thinking, and if we can shift a population in a classroom, into a small town, into a city, and connect the areas in between, we will see how the power of the individual’s effort coalesces into a collaborative and unstoppable, positive force. Become an inspirational leader and take this information to the next level and show the world how amazing mushrooms are!
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