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Mushrooms, though classified as vegetables in the food world, are not technically plants. They belong to the kingdom fungi. There are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi, comprising yeasts and molds along with mushroom-producing macrofungi. All these organisms share certain basic traits with animals: They inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, as we do, and they are susceptible to many of the same germs. Like us, they get their energy by consuming other life forms rather than by photosynthesis.

But a fungus’s body is radically different from an animal’s. Yeasts are unicellular, while molds and macrofungi take the form of mycelia, networks of threadlike membranes. Mycelia absorb nutrients from their surroundings and can rapidly change their growth patterns and other behaviour in response to the environment. A mushroom is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source.

Mushrooms contain some of the most potent natural medicines on the planet. Of the 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi, science is familiar with only 10 percent. Of course they are delicious on pizza and in soup, but they also have some amazing properties that make them essential for the maintenance of the soil, on which we all depend. Not only are they one of nature’s best recyclers, breaking down waste matter into simpler compounds that feed the soil, but they can also break down toxins and render them harmless.

From this comes the idea of mycoremediation, the process of using fungi to degrade or sequester contaminants in the environment. By secreting enzymes and using their natural digestive ability, they are able to degrade complex compounds such as lignin and cellulose (essential components of plants) into simple molecules without any detrimental effects. Interestingly, lignin is very similar in structure to many heavy toxins such as crude oil which explains why some fungi are so effective in eliminating contaminants from polluted systems.

Mycoremediation through mushroom cultivation will alleviate two of the world’s major problems; waste accumulation and production of proteinaceous food simultaneously. Using fungal solutions to the real world problems is a biological approach for ‘clean technologies’ which emphasizes on the maximum production, reduced waste generation, treatment and conversion of waste into some useful form.

Mushroom-producing fungi can serve as game changers in fields as disparate as medicine, forestry, pesticides and pollution control. Mushrooms are potential miracle workers, capable of cleaning up oil spills and radioactive contamination, filtering bacteria-tainted wastewater, speeding reforestation of clear-cut woodlands, boosting agricultural yields and controlling insect pests. They can clean up our world and also act as a future food source.

Fungi have co-evolved with plants over millions of years so that we live immersed in a rich world of plant and microbe diversity. The awareness of importance in this diversity would be the basis for resolving most environmental issues. Research into thousands of fungi that have never been studied nor identified is imperative in restoring and maintaining ecosystem health which in turn may save the future of our planet earth.