Saturday, August 14, 2021

Astromycology: "Future Space Travel Might Require Mushrooms"

Is there anything they can't do?

From Scientific American, August 3:

Mycologist Paul Stamets discusses the potential extraterrestrial uses of fungi, including terraforming planets, building human habitats—and providing psilocybin therapy to astronauts

The list of mycologists whose names are known beyond their fungal field is short, and at its apex is Paul Stamets. Educated in, and a longtime resident of, the mossy, moldy, mushy Pacific Northwest region, Stamets has made numerous contributions over the past several decades— perhaps the best summation of which can be found in his 2005 book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. But now he is looking beyond Earth to discover new ways that mushrooms can help with the exploration of space.

In a new “astromycological” venture launched in conjunction with NASA, Stamets and various research teams are studying how fungi can be leveraged to build extraterrestrial habitats and perhaps someday even terraform planets. This is not the first time Stamets’s career has intersected with speculative space science. He also recently received an honor that many researchers would consider only slightly less hallowed than a Nobel Prize: the distinction of having a Star Trek character named after him.

Scientific American spoke with Stamets about the out-of-this-world implications for the emerging field of astromycology.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

First, a chicken-or-egg question: Did Star Trek: Discovery name a character after you because you had started exploring astromycology, or was the idea for astromycology inspired by Star Trek?

CBS got ahold of me and said the writers of Star Trek wanted to talk to me: “We’re in the dungeon, there’s about a dozen of us, we’ve been tasked with Star Trek: Discovery, we’re hitting a brick wall, and we saw your TED Talk.” I had mentioned terraforming other planets with fungi.

What separates Star Trek from other science fiction, you know, is it really pioneered the importance of inclusivity, recognizing that the diversity of the members of our society gives us strength. And, indeed, that’s what I’ve learned as a mycologist: the biodiversity of our ecosystem gives our ecosystem resilience. Ultimately, diversity wins.

So I told them terraforming with fungi on other planets is very plausible. Fungi were the first organisms that came to land, munching rocks, and fungi gave birth to animals about 650 million years ago. We’re descendants of the descendants of these fungal networks.

I said, “You can have all these concepts for free. I’m a Star Trek fan; I don't want anything for this.” I said, “But, you know, I always wanted to be the first astromycologist.” And at the very end, they go, “Astromycologist, we love that! What a great phrase; we can use that.”

How do you define the term astromycology here in our nonfictional universe?

Astromycology is obviously a subset of astrobiology, so astrobiology would be the study of biological organisms extraterrestrially.

Really, you’re talking about the biology of the universe—and within the biology of the universe is our fungi. So astromycology would be the study of fungal biology throughout the universe. And I think it’s inevitable we’re going to someday find fungi on other planets.

How can Earth’s fungi help with the development of human habitats or even entire ecosystems on other planets?

[Plants that support terraforming] need minerals, and pairing fungi up with the plants and debris from humans [causes them to] decompose into a form that then creates rich soils that could help generate the foods that astronauts need. It’s much easier to take one seed and grow your food than it is to take a ton of food to space, right? Nature is incredibly efficient in terms of a payload. It’s much better for nature to generate a payload of food than for your rocket to carry a payload of food.

Your current research proposal with NASA has two stages. The first involves identifying the best fungal species for breaking down asteroid regolith. Do you currently have any possible candidates?....


If interested see also:

"Dining, design, and construction: Mushrooms are taking over startupland (Startups can’t get enough of our fungal friend)"

Of course there are a couple exceptions to the otherwise magical qualities of the fungus among us:
"Scientists advised against consuming hypersexual zombie cicadas infected with psychoactive fungus" 
Deaths Of 550,000 Confirm Which Mushrooms Are Okay To Eat 

Otherwise though, the fun little guys are quite amazing:
Chernobyl Fungi Eats Radiation
'Shrooms: "Fungal Lightning"
"...Eating mushrooms could slash risk of cognitive decline by 50%"
"Her Royal Highness?... Magic mushrooms at Buckingham Palace"
"Is Fungus the Material of the Future?"
 I tried a chocolate bar that replaces sugar with mushrooms — and couldn’t tell the difference
"The Super Rich Are Investing In Magic Mushrooms And Fancy Batteries"

Possibly also of interest: 
"8 Startups Using Fungi for Innovative Applications"
"NASA says astronauts on the moon and Mars may grow their homes there out of mushrooms" 
Complex Systems: How the Internet Grows, How Viruses Spread, and How Financial Bubbles Burst
"Towards fungal computer"

Possibly also of interest: