As well as being the root of sustainable burgers, vegan leather or ways to recycle toxic waste, could fungi help cure depression?
Tuesday, 4th February 2020, 11:47 am
It seems a bit of a leap to go from Beatrix Potter to Gwyneth Paltrow, but there’s something around us that links the two. They are in the air we breathe, on our skin, inside our bodies, and under the ground we walk on. According to Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens there might be up to 3.8 million species and an estimated 93 per cent of these are unknown.
Fungi. Mushrooms. And the type we’re talking about aren’t just for topping pizzas. A new era of biological, cultural and medical research is highlighting the many uses of mushrooms, from antidepressants to biodegradable packaging to building materials. They can even break down toxic waste, from oil spills to human corpses. And they are popping up in contemporary art of all kinds, as creatives explore the magic of mushrooms.
Potter and Paltrow? Before creating Peter Rabbit, the children’s author painted more than 300 watercolours of mushrooms, in such detail that they were later used by biologists. Nine of these are on display in Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, a new exhibition that opened at Somerset House in central London at the weekend and includes work from more than 40 artists including Cy Twombly, Takashi Murakami and Carsten Höller.
Oscar-winner Paltrow chose mushrooms as the subject of the first episode in her Netflix debut, released last month. In The Goop Lab, a promotional vehicle for Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, Goop, she sends staff members to Jamaica to take “magic” mushrooms in a therapeutic environment, exploring psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in a large number of fungi.
No longer associated with witchcraft and death
Mycology is the study of fungi, and Francesca Gavin, the curator of the Somerset House exhibition, noticed a flourishing streak of mycophilia in the art world, which brought her to put together a smaller show, Champignons, in Paris three years ago.
“I look at art every day,” she says. “And I saw mushrooms popping up everywhere. It’s amazing how many artists have worked with them as a motif, in such a variety of mediums.”
She admits that it was the work of her sister, artist Seana Gavin, that turned her on to the topic. “She was my gateway,” Gavin explains, saying that her sibling’s works “summarise a lot of ideas of mushrooms as an inspiration, looking at mushrooms from the anthropomorphic to the architectural. It spread from there”.
People who don’t like to eat mushrooms often blame the texture. They are springy and spongy, an unusual dimension for western palates.
“Until the rise of amateur botany in the mid-18th century mushrooms were seen as something disgusting in Western Europe,” says Gavin. “They were connected to witchcraft, rotting and death. It wasn’t like that in Russia, Latin America, or Africa.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland depicts mushrooms as a portal to another world and Gavin identifies this as a turning point.
“Something changed in our relationship with nature, and they began to be seen as something interesting. That playful, childlike relationship to toadstools really shifted people’s attention.”
Mushrooms were studied as plants until the 1960s, when they were given their own kingdom of classification. At the same time, the study of the psychotherapeutic potential of psilocybin spread, with advocates such as Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. But it was named a Schedule I substance in the UN’s 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, leading to a worldwide drugs clampdown, and official investigation ended.
Unofficially, experimentation with the trippy power of mushrooms never stopped. Rather it flourished. Last year the Home Office revealed a doubling of 16- to 24-year-olds using mushrooms, from 49,000 in 2016-17 to 101,000 in 2018-19.
They are easy to buy online and microdosing – taking very small amounts to aid in daily life or work rather than to fuel a bender – is popular. As with CBD, the legal cannabis extract cannabidiol, it has become popular to take as an oil.
Microdosing, albeit it with what’s considered a party drug, has become a therapeutic activity where the psilocybin is used as an antidepressant. No problem for those happy to source their own illegally, but many people don’t have the knowledge or the contacts.
The former government drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, is well known for his commitment to decriminalisation and led the 2010 study published in The Lancet that named alcohol as our most dangerous drug, a conclusion he stands by.
Mushrooms are a class A drug in the UK along with heroin and cocaine, but users are considered at no risk of causing harm to others, with a small risk – less than with any other substance – of causing harm to themselves.
- Mycelium has the potential to revolutionise the way we consume and manufacture a huge range of products. It is like a yeast, with fast-growing multi-cellular fibres. It builds a network before it builds its mushroom, but at this stage humans can intervene and direct its growth.
- Cosmetics brand Haeckels recently started to use mycelium packaging, despite the expense. After use, the box will grow into foliage and flowers, biocontributing to the planet.
- Designer Sebastian Cox has made lighting pendants out of mycelium and green wood waste harvested from Kent woodland.
- Some companies are growing faux meat from plant or animal cells. Mycelium recently entered this market and those experimenting with it believe the texture of fungus holds the key to the best meat alternative.
Mental health benefits?
In the past decade Nutt has led a number of studies into the effects of psilocybin on the human brain, but he and others want to get closer to making the drug publicly available, on prescription.
Alongside neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris, he led the first ever clinical study of psilocybin’s potential as an antidepressant, at Imperial College London. The trial monitored sufferers of treatment-resistant depression, and film-maker Monty Wates follows three of these in his film Magic Medicine, which shows the deep fallout of depression among families and society.
There were astonishing results, with many depression-free for a period of time before symptoms returned. The children of one of the participants, named only as John, were delighted to have their father back after eight years of a deep depression, but the door swung shut again after five weeks. John’s son called it a miracle and wants his dad to take it again.
Wates thinks that, once approved, psilocybin clinics run by mental-health professionals could be a solution for those suffering throughout the UK. However, other studies have been seen less convincing results, with one, A Systematic Study of Microdosing Psychedelics, published last year by cognitive scientist Vince Polito, finding “no evidence of increased creativity or life satisfaction. After six weeks of microdosing, a small increase in neuroticism was noted”.
“I’m not saying we should make this thing legal,” says Wates. “That would be crazy, but we should be making these trials easier, because the signs so far are that they are incredibly promising. Let’s pursue it.”
Wates would not wish depression on anyone, but he says attitudes change when there’s a personal commitment from someone in a position of authority. “For example if someone close to the Home Secretary had severe depression, and did magic mushrooms… in a therapeutic environment, and came back transformed, the Home Secretary’s eyes would be opened to the possibility much more than if they read a scientific paper. Things change when there’s a personal commitment from someone in a position of authority.”
Carhartt-Harris finished the first phase of his clinical trial in 2016. Since then more trials have begun, with one taking place across 15 countries.
The future is fungal
The cap and stem growing above the ground is only the beginning of a mushroom’s story. Underneath are its root-like structures, innumerable tubes. The tubes are known as hyphae and the network they form is known as mycelium.
Some types of fungi, known as mycorrhizal fungi, form relationships with plant roots. This is the complex network that flourishes beneath our feet and all around the world, and has the potential, believe experts, to revolutionise our relationship to our planet and approach to nature. Author and biologist Merlin Sheldrake studies this web of plant roots and fungi, nicknamed the Wood Wide Web. Mushroom roots known as mycelium have shown themselves to be a hardy and pliable packaging material, and global corporations such as Dell and Ikea are pushing it all the way through their supply chains.
“There’s a lot of transformative potential in the bio-fabrication field,” says Sheldrake. “You can grow a sheet of mycelium leather on waste materials in two weeks.” The fashion designer Stella McCartney is already experimenting with this fabric.
Mycoremediation is a process by which mushrooms can break down toxic substances, and have been shown to be effective on oil spills, plastic, and human bodies.
Sheldrake’s book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, will be published in May. He doesn’t want to reveal too much about it until then, but the plaudits from friends in similar fields are pouring in. “I ended it wonderstruck at the fungal world and the earth-shaking, hierarchy-breaking implications of Sheldrake’s argument,” says the nature writer Robert Macfarlane.
Can mushrooms revolutionise the way we live? In medical terms, there are many voices supporting their use beyond mental health. The well-known US mycologist Paul Stamets gave a TED talk called “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World”, and believes that they have strong antibacterial and antiviral potential. He has said that mushrooms cured his own mother of advanced cancer.
“I hope that fungi lead us to understand the living world in a more holistic way to help us think more about the networks of connection that underpin all life and lead us to more healthy attitudes towards the living world and ourselves,” says Sheldrake.
Gavin points out the many practical applications of mycelium for design – chairs, lamps, clothing, bricks and pesticides have all been developed from mushrooms – as well as the possibilities in the field of mental health. “There’s been a real rethinking. That’s in a wider sense the importance of it all, the idea we’re not separate to the world but need to live symbiotically with it. The real drive behind the show is why it is important for us to live symbiotically with nature. Because if we don’t, we don’t survive.”