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118-The Power of Mushrooms: Its Potential to Cure Environmental Threats & More

| Care, Podcast

Once in a rare while, you attend a presentation that leaves you speechless and amazed. A few years ago, internationally-acclaimed mycologist Tradd Cotter’s presentation at the University of North Carolina Botanic Garden in Charlotte had that effect on me. He was on stage describing the power of mushrooms, and what he shared blew me away.

Tradd’s career has been an interesting journey. In his younger days, he worked as a mushroom picker and forager before developing an enviable career as a landscape designer. He even worked as a private consultant and designer for many of the world’s notables, including Venus and Serena Williams and baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.

 

Mushroom Mountain's Tradd Cotter

Tradd is always on the hunt for mushrooms – especially mushrooms doing unusual things. (photo: Olga Cotter/Mushroom Mountain LLC)

 

In spite of this lucrative path, Tradd’s fascination with mushrooms never faded, and it led him to found his own business, Mushroom Mountain. Now in its 23rd year, his organization is a hive of activity studying many aspects of mushrooms – ecological, culinary, agricultural, medicinal – and they receive hundreds of fungi from people all over North America for propagation and study.

Why, you might wonder, would so many people send Tradd and his team mushrooms? The answer to that question lies ahead.

During the past two weeks, we explored fungi at work as part of the soil food web. Well, there’s infinitely more magic packed into fungal spores, and research is only just beginning to scratch the surface of possibility.

Mycoremediation

What is mycoremediation anyway? It refers to the ability of mushrooms to produce enzymes which are able to degrade various environmental pollutants. Those enzymes are, essentially fungal sweat. Fungi move across a surface by swimming through their own sweat.

All fungal species are territorial, so when they swim up to a competitor, they actually slow down and pause. Next, the fungus reorganizes its genes in order to sweat out the right cocktail required to kill whatever is competing for the space the fungus wants.

Tradd and his team study the molecular structure of what the fungi sweat out, because that information can point science in the direction of solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems.

What if the cure for cancer lies in the sweat of a fungus? That might very well be possible. Tradd has seen fungi attack and kill a number of diseases. For example, he tested the over 200 species of fungi he had in his lab to determine how they would react to cultures of salmonella. From that experiment, he identified some species that attacked and killed the salmonella bacteria.

There are over 5 million species of fungi on this planet, and each one is capable of creating many different compounds to take down a competitor. That means, their potential for unlocking natural medical and environmental solutions is infinite.

Here’s the problem: The study of fungi holds so much possibility that it’s a little like standing under Niagra Falls and deciding which water droplet you’ll catch first.

 

mushrooms and mycoremediation

Recently, oyster mushroom species were put to work to remediate toxic ash in the aftermath of California wildfires. (photo: Olga Cotter/Mushroom Mountain LLC)

 

Tradd recognizes how critical it is for his team to remain organized in the face of such monumental research tasks. He has grown his team from two to ten during the past two years in response. He refers to their work as chasing a rabbit down the rabbit hole, but the hole just keeps getting deeper and wider. The team is constantly prioritizing which rabbits can be caught quickly and which rabbit holes will just have to wait.

Some of the driving force behind Tradd’s work comes from imagining the possibility of fungi being used to replace antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics is a real problem in our society – from medicinal use to farming and livestock. The diseases we seek to treat are quickly developing immunity to the antibiotics designed to defeat them.

What would happen if antibiotics became completely ineffective and useless? It’s a frightening proposition – unless the power of mushrooms can step in as a better solution.

Customized Treatments

Fungi could hold the secret to medical cures, but they might also be the answer for some of our most challenging garden issues.

If you grow fruit trees, you’re probably at least a little familiar with the risk of bacterial blight disease. It can wipe out a tree in a matter of months. For orchardists, these diseases are a threat to their livelihood.

So, imagine if you could take a sample of blight the moment you notice it on your tree and place it in a specially-designed container with a particular fungus. That fungal species is uniquely able to create a solution specifically-engineered to kill the blight pathogens.

In a matter of hours, the fungi reorganizes its genes to produce a treatment that will kill the pathogen strain unique to your garden. You can grow more of that fungus to apply to your tree, so the fungi population can eradicate the disease – with no impact on other plant or animal life.

The ability to purchase just such a customized, host-specific/pathogen-specific treatment kit is a distinct possibility. It’s just one of the many projects Tradd’s team is focusing on.

They need to identify the right fungi for those agricultural situations. Next, they compare them to broad-spectrum fungicides currently on the market today.

 

Mushroom Mountain intern

The team at Mushroom Mountain has grown from two to ten recently in an effort to better manage the wealth of possibilities that lie within the world of mycoremediation research. (photo: Olga Cotter/Mushroom Mountain LLC)

 

Bioremediation

Ok so, what is bioremediation, exactly? According to Tradd, the medicinal compounds of bioremediation and mycoremediation are almost the same thing. Bioremediation describes the ability of fungi to switch gears at a molecular level to break down and consume natural or manmade materials they encounter in the environment.

To put that mind-blowing statement another way – fungi can break down oils, PCP, dioxins, DDT, all sorts of the environmental bad guys we are struggling to find ways to properly mitigate.

Do mushrooms have your attention yet?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can pull up the mushroom in your backyard and set it down in the oil stain on your driveway to get rid of the oil. Each species of fungi is armed with unique chemical keys. Not all mushrooms have the ability to take on these toxic substances. It’s all about identifying which fungi has the chemical keys to mitigate which specific material.

That’s another project on Tradd’s “in progress” list. He and his team are diligently testing strain after strain of fungi to observe how they interact with various hazardous materials. It’s their goal to determine which species eats up which toxin, and how we can translate that knowledge into an environmental solution.

In case you aren’t quite a believer yet, Tradd shared some fascinating examples of the power of mushrooms against toxins.

During a state park visit, Tradd – ever on the lookout for all things fungi – noticed a mushroom growing on an oozing, green-tinged, new board of treated lumber. You’ve seen those in the big box stores, right? Maybe you’ve even used them for a project. These boards are loaded with a number of toxic chemicals.

Tradd realized the fungus was eating the chemically-treated wood. He took a sample of the wood and the mushroom, and he cloned the fungus. The Mushroom Mountain team worked with those samples in the lab, and they now have a fungal species identified which is capable of eating creosote.

Imagine never having to add old railroad ties to a landfill again! Instead, they could be piled up and eaten away by a colony of fungi.

 

Cordyceps mushroom attacking scale

This isn’t modern art. This is a scale insect on a sweetgum branch. It is being attacked by a Cordyceps mushroom. The fungus is radiating out from the doomed insect. (photo: Olga Cotter/Mushroom Mountain LLC)

 

Are you getting goosebumps yet? I had them while listening to Tradd share this development and this next one that could revolutionize our plastics problem:

Tradd was contacted by an individual who noticed a mushroom growing out of a bowling ball in Florida. He assumed the mushroom was feeding on something in a finger hole or on the surface, but when he saw it for himself, Tradd realized that the fungus was actually eating the bowling ball. The spores of this lifeform – a crust fungus – had landed on the ball at some point, and its chemical markers and determination to live gave it the ability to feed on resin.

Resin is used in plastic. Imagine harnessing this ability to eliminate plastic waste. It’s a real possibility. According to Tradd, there could even be an opportunity for infusing fungal spores into the matrix of plastics products during production to create a self-destructing/self-composting plastic product.

Tradd likes to say that desperate fungus do desperate things. Fortunately, through scientific study, that desperation could lead to remarkable benefits for our environment.

By now, you’re probably beginning to understand why people familiar with Mushroom Mountain’s work are sending fungal samples to the lab. Well, there are also a number of gardeners always on the lookout for mushrooms to send to Tradd. Why? Some of those mushrooms hold the key to solving big pest problems threatening our forests and food supplies right now.

Why the Mummy Matters

There’s another fungal field of study – MycoPesticides. After all, it makes sense that, if fungi can eat creosote, they sure as heck can take out garden pests. One of Tradd’s first experiences with this phenomenon was on a foraging trip in the Appalachian Mountains.

He happened to notice what looked like a tiny thread sticking out of a carpenter ant. It was actually the mummified remains of the ant, which had been colonized and devoured by fungi. The fungi left behind “spore prints” Tradd took it back to the lab and cloned it. On a whim, he dumped some of the cloned fungi on a fire ant pile in his backyard.

 

Mummified black carpenter ant

The fungal “antlers” alerted Tradd to the fungus which had mummified this carpenter ant. The same fungus had the ability to eradicate a fire ant colony on Tradd’s property. (photo: Olga Cotter/Mushroom Mountain LLC)

 

The very next day, he discovered that this very active pile of fire ants was no longer very active. In fact, it was completely dead – as was another pile 10’ away (likely the same colony, but that gives you an idea of how big the colony was). He hasn’t seen a fire ant on his 8-acre property in the five years since. Meanwhile, native ants have been unaffected.

So, why are fire ants wiped out, but the native ants aren’t on the fungi menu? The ability of fungi to attack an insect is very host-specific. The spores are inert until they can germinate on the cuticle of precisely the insect species the spore species evolved to attack and mummify. In other words, the spore may stick to other bugs, but it’s unable to germinate and feed on them.

Tradd and his team are at work identifying which fungus will effectively attack which species of pest.

This knowledge could help you, right now, in your garden; and Tradd is encouraging gardeners everywhere to take advantage.

Are you familiar with the alarming infestation of invasive Spotted Lantern flies? It’s causing a $5 billion problem for the Department of Agriculture in the State of Pennsylvania alone. These pests cover trees in droves, suck out the sap and kill the trees. Their hordes are wiping out long-established vineyards and orchards all across the upper Mideastern U.S. and voraciously spreading to other areas.

Fortunately, Tradd has good news. He was contacted by a woman who found a mummified Spotted Lantern fly in her yard. She recognized the impact of her find and spent hours driving to deliver the mummy to Tradd in person. From that single sample, the team at Mushroom Mountain was able to culture the fungi to be used as a treatment against Spotted Lantern flies.

Where can you get this product? You don’t need to buy it. You can make it in your own home. All you need is one infected, dead bug – a mummy. It will probably be stuck to a tree which has come under attack.

Put the mummy in a humidity chamber – a tight container with a moist paper towel – and allow a little time until the fungus appears to “fluff up” – a sign of growth. Put the fungi in a blender with water, give it a whirl, and strain it.

What you have left will be a spore-filled liquid that you can put into a sprayer to apply to the backs of the next colony of Spotted Lanternfly to strike. The spores will colonize and kill the flies, leaving you more mummies to make more spore treatment. Since the fungi don’t have the chemical markers to attack other species in the broad-spectrum of the insect world, this is one treatment you can feel great about using in the garden.

If you can’t find a mummy, you can make one. Tradd suggests you spray Spotted Lanternflies with a product called Mycotrol. That’s a broad-spectrum organic fungus which will kill (mummify) a wide range of insects, so apply it directly on the flies. It’s not very effective on this particular pest, but all you need is one mummified Spotted Lanternfly.

Inside will be the spores of the fungi which switched gears to develop the unique ability to devour the Spotted Lanternfly. Once you have that, you can follow the blender process to create the fungal treatment which kills only that pest.

 

Mummified Japanese beetle

Japanese beetles – the dread of gardeners everywhere, and easy prey for a unique species of fungus. (photo: Olga Cotter/Mushroom Mountain LLC)

 

That news is exciting in its own right, but it doesn’t just apply to the Spotted Lanternfly. Pest issues all around the world tend to be inherent to certain areas. If you identify a mummified pest – any mummified pest – in your garden, congratulations. You’ve found the fungus that will arm you to defeat that pest.

The cloning and blending process to create a treatment is just as effective against any pest you are waging war against. You can also share it with your neighbors, and really make a mark on the local pest population.

The specific steps behind this process are all available on the Mushroom Mountain University website. The team has developed a mini-course to teach gardeners everywhere how to create their own inexpensive (or free) and organic pest treatment which is safe for the beneficial creatures in our environment.

Tradd also asks that you consider sending the mummified insect to him. His team will study it in hopes of identifying the molecular structure effective against our garden pests. As he likes to say – be on the lookout for mushrooms doing amazing things. Together, we can create a grassroots approach to solving the world’s agricultural, environmental and medicinal problems.

Mycorrhizae

There are a number of products in the gardening industry which tout that they contain the beneficial fungi known as mycorrhizae. Are they worth all the hype? In a podcast nearly a year ago, Dr. Jeff Gilman claimed they weren’t and Tradd agrees.

These fungi are found in soil natively, but they don’t have a long shelf life. In fact, any liquid product containing mycorrhizae contains only dead mycorrhizae, which provide no benefit.

Soil which hasn’t been treated with chemicals – like broad-spectrum fungicides used in treatment of disease – is probably host to a healthy population of mycorrhizae. If your soil doesn’t have a healthy soil food web, it’s better to purchase an inoculum of mycorrhizae. Tradd recommends that you request a certificate of viability from the supplier to be sure of quality.

How you fertilize might be having a negative impact on your native mycorrhizae. Soil containing an overabundance of phosphate (in other words, adding fertilizer high in phosphorus) causes the plant to block mycorrhizae from entering its root system. So, go easy on the bone meal application out there.

You can increase your mycorrhizal population naturally with a couple of easy steps in fall. Mycorrhizae not blocked due to high phosphorus levels persist in root fragments of plants. After harvesting at the end of the summer season, withhold all water for about a week, then cut plant tops down. When only the roots remain, the mycorrhizae mycelium become stressed, which causes them to sporulates in the soil. The spores persist to become active mycorrhizae.

 

Cordyceps mushroom infecting a spider

This fungus on this spider mummy has the unique ability to change its molecular structure to overcome the insect. (photo: Olga Cotter/Mushroom Mountain LLC)

 

The Learning Continues

Researchers like Tradd and his team are only just beginning to scratch the surface of all that the fungal world has to offer. There are few areas of study producing such a wealth of new information on a weekly basis.

If you are interested in diving deeper into what is currently known, I suggest you check out the educational programs offered by Mushroom Mountain. Eighteen months ago, the team launched Mushroom Mountain University offering online courses and classroom events to teach all of us how to grow mushrooms, use fungi to develop pest treatments, an introduction to mycoremediation and more – with more on the way.

Tradd has also written a best-selling book, Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation. If you’re near northwestern South Carolina, check out the facility tours offered by Mushroom Mountain.

Another area close to Tradd’s heart is introducing kids to the fungal kingdom. According to Tradd, the biological teaching standards in the U.S. for kids up through Grade 5 are based on the credo “It will be understood that soil is non-living.” Let’s take steps to make sure our kids have a greater understanding of our soil food web and the life of fungi. It might just give them a greater appreciation for life in general.

I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the power of mushrooms and that it has opened your eyes to some exciting possibilities. Be sure to listen to this discussion by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar just under the page title. Tradd shared some additional examples of what he’s seen mushrooms accomplish, and every one is remarkable. Have you ever noticed a mushroom doing remarkable things in your garden? I hope you’ll share your observation in the Comments section below.

Links & Resources

Episode 070: Decoding Garden Advice: Good, Debatable or Just Plain Wrong, with Jeff Gillman

Episode 116: Understanding the Soil Food Web, with Dr. Elaine Ingham

joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – my newest online course! Just $47 for lifetime access.

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Mushroom Mountain

Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced and Experimental Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation, by Tradd Cotter

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Milorganite® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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