The Unexpected Uses—and Powers—of Mushrooms

KATE WHITLEY

From using them as building materials to mental health tools, one fungus expert is pushing the boundaries for what mushrooms can do in our world.

British biologist and fungus expert Merlin Sheldrake became the latest champion for the mycology world this spring with the publication of his book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. He celebrated by feeding a copy to a battalion of Pleurotus ostreatus, or oyster mushrooms, recording audio as they spent a week engulfing the book. Sheldrake, who in his spare time performs with a band called Gentle Mystics, accompanied on piano. He also ate the mushrooms.

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Entangled Life is a varied look at the possibilities offered by this organic kingdom, one that’s become increasingly vital to our vision of a more sustainable future. “Fungi are some of the most masterful microorganisms on the planet,” says Sheldrake. “Without them, nothing would decompose, and the earth would be piled kilometers deep in bodies. We live and breathe in the space that decomposition leaves behind.” Sheldrake’s writing also explores cutting-edge innovations for mushrooms, like using them as building materials; teaching them to eat human detritus such as cigarette butts, oil spills, and radiation; and ongoing studies of psilocybin, a psychedelic, as a mental-health tool. “There is radical research suggesting that one or two doses in a carefully controlled environment can change people’s views of the world, and alleviate treatment-resistant depression,” he says. “I think fungi can help all of us think in new ways about how we relate to the world around us, and we need to start doing that quite urgently.”