Under Jim Anderson's feet lies a monster. It has been alive since Persian King Xerxes waged war against the ancient Greeks and weighs more than three blue whales together. It has an insatiable appetite and eats through huge tracts of woodland. However, this is not a forgotten animal of Greek mythology. It is a mushroom.
Anderson stands in a modest forest in Crystal Falls on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. He visits an underground organism that he and his colleagues discovered almost 30 years ago. This is the home of Armillaria gallica a kind of honey mushroom.
You might also like:
• The Truth About Nitrates in Your Food
• Wet Countries That Are Dry Running
• How Meal Times Affect the Waist
These frequent Mushrooms occur in temperate forests throughout Asia, North America and Europe, where they grow on dead or dying wood, accelerating decay. The only visible sign of them above the ground are often clumps of scale-like, tawny, toadstool-like fruiting bodies that grow up to 1
When Anderson and his colleagues visited Crystal Falls in the late 1980s, they discovered what had initially appeared as a rich community of Armillaria gallica which flourished under the deciduous mulch of leaf litter and top soil of the forest floor actually a huge single copy. They estimated that it covered 91 hectares, weighed 100 tons, and was at least 1,500 years old. It set a new record for Earth's largest organism at that time – a similar mushroom in a forest in Oregon now holds the record.
"It got quite a stir then," says Anderson. "Our newspaper appeared on the April-April day, and everyone thought it was a joke. In 2015, we thought we should go back and test our prognosis that it is indeed a consistent single organism. "
The new results showed that it was four times larger, 1,000 years older and would weigh approximately 400 tons . They returned to the site several times between 2015 and 2017, taking samples from distant locations in the forest and then left the DNA they had received through a sequencer in their laboratory at the University of Toronto. Since its first study in the 1980s, genetic analysis has been limited, with new techniques making the process far cheaper, faster, and more information-intensive.
Their new samples showed that not only Armillaria gallica they had discovered a single individual, but it was much larger and older than they had predicted. The new results showed that it was four times larger, 1,000 years older and weighed about 400 tons.
However, the analysis revealed an even more surprising finding that could help us humans in the fight against modern medicines biggest enemies – cancer.
The Canadian researchers discovered what may be the secret behind Armillaria gallica . It seems that the fungus has an extremely low mutation rate, which means that it may prevent harmful changes to its genetic code.
As the organisms grow, their cells divide into two to form new daughter cells. Over time, the DNA in the cells can be damaged, leading to errors, called mutations, that creep into the genetic code. It is believed that this is one of the key mechanisms that cause aging.
But it seems that the Armillaria gallica in Crystal Falls has some resistance to this DNA damage. In 15 samples taken from distant parts of the forest and sequenced by the team, only 163 characters out of 100 million had changed in the genetic code of Armillaria gallica .
The fungus has a mechanism that helps protect its DNA from damage, making it one of nature's most stable genomes
"The mutation frequency is much, much lower, than we ever imagined," says Anderson. "To achieve this small mutation, we would expect the cells to divide on average once per meter of growth. However, it is amazing that the cells are microscopically small – only a few microns in size – so you would need millions of them every meter. "
Anderson and his team believe that the fungus has a mechanism that protects it from DNA damage that makes it one of nature's most stable genomes. While they may not yet know exactly what that is, the remarkable stability of the genome of Armillaria gallica could provide new insights into human health.
In some cancers, mutations in the cells may be normal Mechanisms that check and repair DNA failure.
" Armillaria gallica may represent a potential counterpoint to the notorious instability of cancer," says Anderson. "If you look at a number of cancer cells that are equivalent in old age, they would be so full of mutations that you probably would not recognize them. Armillaria is on the other side. It might be possible to find out the evolutionary changes that made it and compare them to cancer cells. "
In this way, scientists could not only learn more about what goes wrong in cancer cells, but also offer potential new ways of cancer treatment.
While Anderson and his colleagues do not intend to do this work themselves, they leave it to others younger and more qualified to understand the genetic complexities of cancer. Their findings provide a fascinating insight into the untapped power of mushrooms to help humanity.
The combined biomass of fungi surpasses that of all the animals collected on earth
Fungi are some of the most common organisms on our planet – the combined biomass of these often tiny organisms surpasses that of all animals on the planet. And we are constantly discovering new mushrooms. More than 90% of the world's estimated 3.8 million fungi are currently unknown to science. In 2017 alone, there were 2,189 new species of fungi described by scientists.
A recent report by British Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London highlighted that mushrooms are already being used in hundreds of different ways, from papermaking to cleaning up our dirty clothes. Around 15% of all vaccines and biologically produced medicines come from mushrooms. For example, the complex proteins used to elicit an immune response to the hepatitis B virus are grown in yeast cells that are part of the fungal family.
Perhaps the antibiotic penicillin discovered in the best known is a common kind of household mold that often grows on old bread. Dozens of other types of antibiotics are now produced by fungi.
They are also treatment sources for migraine and statins for the treatment of heart disease. A relatively new immunosuppressant used to treat multiple sclerosis has been developed from a compound produced by a fungus that infests cicada larvae.
"It's part of this fungal family that invades insects and inherits them," says Tom Prescott, a researcher who rates the use of plants and fungi at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. "They produce these compounds to suppress the immune system of insects, and it turns out that they can also be used in humans."
However, some researchers believe that we have scarcely scratched the surface of what mushrooms can offer us.
Fungi can destroy viruses that cause diseases such as flu, polio, mumps, measles and glandular fever
"It has already been reported [fungi] that it works against viral diseases," says Riikka Linnakoski, forest pathologist at Natural Resources Institute Finland , Mushroom-derived compounds can destroy viruses that cause diseases such as flu, polio, mumps, measles and glandular fever. Many fungi also produce compounds that could treat diseases that are not currently cured, such as HIV and the Zika virus.
"I believe that these represent only a small fraction of the total arsenal of bioactive compounds," says Linnakoski. "Mushrooms are a huge source of various bioactive molecules that could potentially be used as antivirals in the future."
It is part of a research team investigating whether fungi that grow in the mangrove forests of Colombia could be new sources of antiviral agents. These goals have not yet been achieved. While fungi have been well studied as a source of antibiotics against bacteria, no antiviral agents derived from fungi have been approved.
Linnakoski attributes this apparent omission of the scientific community to the difficulty of collecting and cultivating many natural environments and the historical lack of communication between mycologists and the virology community. However, she believes that it will only be a matter of time before a fungal-based antiviral drug can enter clinics.
Linnakoski also believes that new types of fungi are sought in inhospitable environments, such as sediment on the seabed. Some of the deepest parts of the ocean or in the very changeable conditions of mangrove forests could provide even more exciting connections.
"The extreme conditions are believed to stimulate fungi to produce unique and structurally unprecedented secondary metabolites," she says. "Unfortunately, many of the indigenous ecosystems that offer great potential for discovering new bioactive compounds, such as mangrove forests, are disappearing at an alarming rate."
A fungus found in a landfill on the outskirts of Islamabad. Pakistan can rapidly degrade polyurethane plastic
But mushrooms have uses that solve problems other than our health.
A fungus growing in the ground in a landfill on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan could be a solution to this. The alarming amounts of plastic pollution are clogging our oceans. Fariha Hasan, a microbiologist at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, discovered that the fungi Aspergillus tubingensis can rapidly degrade polyurethane plastics.
These plastics, from which a wide range of products including furniture made foams, electronics housings, adhesives and films can hang for years in soil and sea water. However, it has been found that the fungi degrade it within a few weeks. Hasan and her team are now exploring how they can use mushrooms for large-scale plastic waste removal. Other fungi, such as Pestalotiopsis microspor which normally grow on rotting ivy leaves, have also found an amazing appetite for plastic, raising the hope that they could solve our growing waste problem.
In fact, mushrooms have a certain taste for the pollution with which we pollute our world. Species have been discovered that can remove oil pollution from the soil, degrade harmful heavy metals, consume persistent pesticides, and even help rehabilitate radioactive sites.
However, mushrooms could also help to avoid the use of some plastics.
A number of groups around the world are now trying to exploit a key feature of fungi – the vein-like mycelium pathways they produce – to create materials that can replace plastic packaging. As mushrooms grow, these mycelial branches branch outward to seek out and connect to corners and corners of the soil. They are the glue of nature.
In 2010, Ecovative Design investigated how they could combine natural waste products such as rice hulls and wood chips to create an alternative to polystyrene packaging. Her early work has developed into MycoComposite, which uses leftover hemp pieces as base material.
These, along with mushroom spores and flour, are packed in reusable molds that grow for nine days. They produce enzymes that begin to digest the waste. Once the material has grown to the desired shape, it is treated with heat to dry out the material and stop further growth. The resulting mushroom packaging is biodegradable and is already being used by companies such as Dell to package computers.
The company has also developed a way to process mycelium into foams that can be used in trainers or as insulation, and fabrics that mimic leather. In collaboration with Bolt Threats, a sustainable textile company, it combines the waste with the mycelium and grows it into a mat that is browned and compressed. The whole process takes days and not more years than for leather.
Stella McCartney is one of the designers who want to use this mushroom leather. Shoe designer Liz Ciokajlo recently used Mycelium to create a modern reimaging of the 1970s moon boot fashion trend
It's possible to tune the quality of mycelial material by altering the digestible substance
Athanassia Athanassiou, a materials scientist at Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, has developed with mushrooms new types of bandages for the treatment of chronic wounds.
However, she also discovered that it is possible to change the quality of the mycelial material by altering the digestible material. The harder a substance is for the mushrooms – such as wood chips instead of potato peels -, the stiffer the resulting mycelium material, for example.
It increases the likelihood of using mushrooms for more robust purposes.
California MycoWorks has developed ways to convert fungi into building materials. By blending wood with mycelium, they have succeeded in producing bricks that are fire retardant and harder than conventional concrete.
Tien Huynh, a biotechnologist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, initiated a project of similar mushroom stone by combining mycelium Trametes versicolor with rice hulls and crushed waste glass.
She says that not only does she provide a cheap and environmentally friendly building material, but it also helps to solve another problem many homes are facing in Australia and around the world – termites. The silica content of rice and glass makes the material less appetizing for termites, which cause billions of house damage each year.
"In our research, we have also used the fungi to produce enzymes and new biostructures, such as sound absorption, strength, and flexibility," says Huynh. Her team is also working on the use of mushrooms to make chitin – a substance that is used to thicken foods and in many cosmetics.
"Usually, chitin is processed from shellfish that have hypoallergenic properties," she says. "The mushroom chitin does not do it. We will be offering more mushroom-based products later this year, but it's certainly a fascinating resource that will not be exploited. "
Mushrooms can also be used in combination with traditional building materials to create a" smart concrete "that can heal itself as a fungus, grows into any cracks that develop, and fresh calcium carbonate – the key raw material in concrete – is eliminated to repair the damage.
"The possibilities for using mycelium are endless," says Gitartha Kalita, bioengineer at Assam Engineering College and Assam Don Bosco University in Guwahati, India. He and his colleagues have created an alternative to lumber with mushrooms and hay waste. "Everything we now call agricultural waste is indeed an incredible resource on which to grow mushrooms. We have already degraded our environment, and so if we can replace the current materials with something that is sustainably sustainable. You can turn our waste into something that is really valuable to us.
Join 900,000+ Future Fans by Like Us on Facebook or Follow Us Twitter or Instagram .
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com newsletter "19459010" titled "If You Read Only 6 Things This Week". A hand-picked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel that are sent to your inbox every Friday.