(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘mushrooms

“Attend to mushrooms and all other things will answer up”*…

Travis Boyer: Crush Blue, 2020

The living– and conscious?– infrastructure of the biosphere…

Imagine that you are afloat on your back in the sea. You have some sense of its vast, unknowable depths—worlds of life are surely darting about beneath you. Now imagine lying in a field, or on the forest floor. The same applies, though we rarely think of it: the dirt beneath you, whether a mile or a foot deep, is teeming with more organisms than researchers can quantify. Their best guess is that there are as many as one billion microbes in a single teaspoon of soil. Plant roots plunge and swerve like superhighways with an infinite number of on-ramps. And everywhere there are probing fungi.

Fungi are classified as their own kingdom, separate from plants and animals. They are often microscopic and reside mostly out of sight—mainly underground—but as Merlin Sheldrake writes in Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, they support and sustain nearly all living systems. Fungi are nature’s premiere destroyers and creators, digesting the world’s dead and leaving behind new soil. When millions of hair-like fungal threads—called hyphae—coalesce, felting themselves into complex shapes, they emerge from the ground as mushrooms. A mushroom is to a fungus as a pear is to a pear tree: the organism’s fruiting body, with spores instead of seeds. Mushrooms disperse spores by elaborate means: some species generate puffs of air to send them aloft, while others eject them by means of tiny, specialized catapults so they accelerate ten thousand times faster than a space shuttle during launch.

But Sheldrake is most interested in fungi’s other wonders—specifically, how they challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and stretch the notion of biological individuality. Fungi infiltrate the roots of almost every plant, determining so much about its life that researchers are now asking whether plants can be considered plants without them. They are similarly interwoven throughout the human body, busily performing functions necessary to our health and well-being or, depending on the fungi’s species and lifestyle, wreaking havoc. All of this prompts doubts about what we thought we knew to be the boundaries between one organism and another…

ungi themselves form large networks of hyphae strands in order to feed. These strands, when massed together, are called mycelium. The total length of mycelium threaded through the globe’s uppermost four inches of soil is believed to be enough to span half the width of our galaxy. Mycelium is constantly moving, probing its surroundings in every direction and coordinating its movements over long distances. When food is found—a nice chunk of rotting wood, for example—disparate parts of the mycelium redirect to coalesce around it, excrete enzymes that digest it externally, and then absorb it. As Sheldrake puts it, “The difference between animals and fungi is simple: Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.”

Fungi are literally woven into the roots and bodies of nearly every plant grown in natural conditions. “A plant’s fungal partners,” Sheldrake writes, “can have a noticeable impact on its growth.” In one striking example, he describes an experiment in which strawberries grown with different fungal partners changed their sweetness and shape. Bumblebees seemed able to discern the difference and were more attracted to the flowers of strawberry plants grown with certain fungal species. Elsewhere he discusses an experiment in which researchers took fungi that inhabited the roots of a species of coastal grass that grew readily in saltwater and added it to a dry-land grass that could not tolerate the sea. Suddenly the dry-land grass did just fine in brine.

Much has been written lately about trees communicating and sharing resources among themselves; healthy trees have been documented moving resources toward trees that have fallen ill. This is often characterized as friendship or altruism between trees, but it is not at all clear whether trees pass information or nutrients intentionally. What is clear, though, is that the fungal networks entwined in every tree root make this communication possible. “Why might it benefit a fungus to pass a warning between the multiple plants that it lives with?” Sheldrake asks. The answer is survival. “If a fungus is connected to several plants and one is attacked by aphids, the fungus will suffer as well as the plant,” he writes. “It is the fungus that stands to benefit from keeping the healthy plant alive.”…

Fungi are genetically closer to animals than to plants, and similar enough to humans at the molecular level that we benefit from many of their biochemical innovations. In fact, many of our pharmaceuticals are borrowed innovations from fungi. Penicillin, discovered in 1928 by the Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming, is a compound produced by fungus for protection against bacterial infection. The anti-cancer drug Taxol was originally isolated from the fungi that live inside yew trees. More than half of all enzymes used in industry are generated by fungi, Sheldrake notes, and 15 percent of all vaccines are produced using yeast. We are, as he puts it, “borrowing a fungal solution and rehousing it within our own bodies.”..

We know that fungi maintain “countless channels of chemical communication with other organisms,” and that they are constantly processing diverse information about their environment. Some can recognize color, thanks to receptors sensitive to blue and red light, though it is not entirely clear what they do with that information. Some even have opsins, light-detecting proteins also found within the rods and cones of the animal eye. One fungus, Phycomyces blakesleeanus, has a sensitivity to light similar to that of a human eye and can “detect light at levels as low as that provided by a single star” to help it decide where to grow. It is also able to sense the presence of nearby objects and will bend away from them before ever making contact. Still other fungi recognize texture; according to Sheldrake, the bean rust fungus has been demonstrated to detect grooves in artificial surfaces “three times shallower than the gap between the laser tracks on a CD.”

Can fungi, then, be said to have a mind of their own? That is, as Sheldrake puts it, a “question of taste”—there is no settled scientific definition for “intelligence,” not even for animals. The Latin root of the word means “to choose between,” an action fungi clearly do all the time. But the application of this kind of term to fungi is loaded with something more mystical than that simple definition and demands a willingness to rattle our sense of where we ourselves fall in the imagined hierarchy of life. If fungi can be said to think, it is a form of cognition so utterly different that we strain to see it.

After all, philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett argue that drawing any neat line between nonhumans and humans with “real minds” is an “archaic myth.” Our brains evolved from nonmental material. “Brains are just one such network,” Sheldrake writes, “one way of processing information.” We still don’t know how the excitement of brain cells gives rise to experience. Can we really dismiss the possibility of cognition in an organism that clearly adapts, learns, and makes decisions simply based on the lack of a brain structure analogous to ours?

Perhaps there is intelligent life all around us, and our view is too human-centric to notice. Are fungi intelligent? Sheldrake reserves judgment, deferring instead to scientific mystery: “A sophisticated understanding of mycelium is yet to emerge.” Still, after spending long enough in the atmosphere of Sheldrake’s sporulating mind, I began to adopt the fungal perspective. I can’t help now but see something like a mind wherever there might be fungal threads—which is to say everywhere, a mesh-like entangled whole, all over the earth.

Fungi challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and complicate the boundaries between one organism and another: “Our Silent Partners“– Zoë Schlanger (@zoeschlanger) reviewing Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures in @nybooks.

Why did the mushroom go to the party? Because he was a fungi.” – Lewis Tomlinson

* A. R. Ammons


As we ponder partnership, we might spare a thought for Jens Wilhelm August Lind; he died on this date in 1939. An apothecary, botanist and mycologist, he published a full account of all fungi collected in Denmark by his teacher, Emil Rostrup. Combining his pharmaceutical and mycological knowledge, he was early in experimenting with chemical control of plant pathogens.

Lind also collaborated with Knud Jessen on an account on the immigration history of weeds to Denmark.

Gravestone of Jens Lind and wife Gunild, at Viborg Cemetery


“If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan”*…





In 1955, a bank executive and a New York society photographer found themselves in a thatch-roofed adobe home in a remote village in the Mazateca mountains. Gordon Wasson, then a vice president at J.P. Morgan, had been learning about the use of mushrooms in different cultures, and tracked down a Mazatec healer, or curandera, named María Sabina. Sabina, about 60 at the time, had been taking hallucinogenic mushrooms since she was a young child . She led Wasson and the photographer, Allan Richardson, through a mushroom ceremony called the velada.

“We chewed and swallowed these acrid mushrooms, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck,” Wasson wrote in a Life magazine article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” “We had come from afar to attend a mushroom rite but had expected nothing so staggering as the virtuosity of the performing curanderas and the astonishing effects of the mushrooms.”

Appointing himself as one of the “first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms,” Wasson inadvertently exposed much of the Western world, and the burgeoning counterculture movement, to psychedelic mushrooms. On the other side of the globe, the Swiss drug company Sandoz received 100 grams of the mushrooms from a botanist who had visited Sabina on one of Wasson’s return trips. They went to the lab of Albert Hofmann (see here) the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD. In 1963, Hofmann traveled to Mexico with pills containing synthetic psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms.

“We explained to María Sabina that we had isolated the spirit of the mushrooms and that it was now in these little pills,” Hofmann said during an interview in 1984. “When we left, María Sabina told us that these tablets really contained the spirit of the mushrooms.”

Hofmann’s pills were the first indication that while people can have spiritual and transcendent experiences from eating the mushrooms themselves, they can also have such experiences with a man-made version of just one of the mushroom’s compounds: psilocybin.

This development is particularly relevant today, as scientists study psychedelic mushrooms as potential treatment options for those who suffer from severe depression, addiction, and more. In clinical trials, such as those ongoing at Johns Hopkins University and Imperial College London, participants don’t eat caps or stems. They consume synthetic psilocybin, made in a lab by chemists in a way similar to how Hofmann first made his psilocybin.

It’s a necessary hurdle: Psilocybin mushrooms can be grown relatively easily, and aren’t expensive to produce. But researchers have to source their psilocybin from highly regulated labs because natural products vary, and researchers need consistency in chemical composition and dosage in order to do controlled studies. Clinicians need to know how much of a drug they’re giving to a patient, how long it takes to kick in, and how long it lasts; they also need to be sure their drug isn’t tainted with other chemicals. It also helps to be able to mass-produce large amounts and not be threatened by variables, like weather, that affect agricultural products.

As psilocybin moves closer to becoming a legal medicine meeting all the regulatory requirements, doctors won’t be writing prescriptions for mushroom caps or stems—and this will come at a certain cost. Johns Hopkins researchers have claimed they’ve paid labs $7,000 to $10,000 per gram of psilocybin, whereas the street price of magic mushrooms is around $10 per gram. Besides the cost of chemical materials, the steep sticker price comes from the labor required to adhere to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s strict drug-making standards, known as Current Good Manufacturing Practice.

It’s an unprecedented moment, and psychedelic culture must reckon with what it means for a magic mushroom to become a synthetic pill, to be picked up at your local pharmacy or from a doctor. There’s some wariness in the psychedelic community about what synthetic psilocybin represents: big business, questionable investors, and patents on experiences they think shouldn’t have a price tag or a profit margin. Since it’s a known natural compound, psilocybin itself cannot be patented, but the way it’s made and used can be. Already there are organizations applying for patents for their synthesis process, and innovators coming up with new ways to make large amounts of synthetic psilocybin, all seeking protection for their intellectual property…

The truth is, there is money to be made in psychedelics, and investors are flocking to back startups in the psychedelic and mental health spaces. The current antidepressant medication market was valued at $14 billion in 2018 and is estimated to grow to $16 billion in the next three to five years. Any drug company that can compete stands to become very wealthy…

As magic mushrooms make the shift from recreational drug to mental health treatment, patients won’t be eating caps and stems, but a synthetic product made in a lab—one that pharma companies can patent and from which they can profit: “Get Ready for Pharmaceutical-Grade Magic Mushroom Pills.”

* Terence McKenna


As we ponder the profound, we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that city authorities in the California beach town of Santa Cruz announced a total ban on the public performance or playing of rock and roll music, calling it “detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.”

It may seem obvious now that Santa Cruz’s ban on “Rock-and-roll and other forms of frenzied music” was doomed to fail, but it was hardly the only such attempt. Just two weeks later in its June 18, 1956 issue, Time magazine reported on similar bans recently enacted in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and in San Antonio, Texas, where the city council’s fear of “undesirable elements” echoed the not-so-thinly-veiled concerns of Santa Cruz authorities over the racially integrated nature of the event that prompted the rock-and-roll ban… (source)

rock ban source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 3, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: