In the 2023 HBO post-apocalyptic drama ‘The Last of Us’, a pandemic is caused by a mass fungal infection that transforms its hosts into zombies, collapsing society and threatening all those not yet infected. Individuals rushed to social media, Reddit forums and even doctors, concerned that infectious fungi will paralyse humanity, sporing all over our bodies, turning us blind and undead, inflamed by the knowledge that the series (based on a video game) is inspired by a real ‘zombifying’ fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.


Fungified zombies from ‘The Last of Us’. Images: BGFX/HBO. Source: Stan Winston, School of Character Arts.

We can confirm: fungi will almost certainly play a central role in the future of humanity – but as a resource, not our destruction.

Fans of the show were assured by scientists and health professionals that they had nothing to fear: the fungi in question is incapable of paralyzing anything other than ants and tiny insects. Fungi are, however, multitalented powerhouses, offering a plethora of ecological, biological, and physical uses. Mushrooms provide food and medicine, are crucial for ecosystem health and and are sufficiently versatile and complex that innovative processes can transform them into all kind of materials. 

So this spring, we are assigning our Hero of the Month to mushrooms. (This publication is part of our HOM series: dedicated to our heroes, love letters to products, species, things, that are all-round champions in the fight against climate change). 


Source: Hans Veth via Unsplash.


To comprehend the power of fungi one must first understand their role in nature. A vast global biodiversity research effort to identify the ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’ of fungi proclaims the following: “Fungi underpin nearly all life on Earth, being vitally important to land plants, how ecosystems function and ultimately, the whole of humanity”[1].

While ‘fungi’ or ‘mushrooms’ conjures to mind images of button mushrooms, truffles or (less delicious) mould, the very large majority of fungi are invisible to us, hidden in organic substrata: soil, water, dead wood or other organisms[2]. Immense networks of mycelium (tiny threads of fungal organisms) wrap around tree roots, connecting them and sharing resources – through these “wood-wide webs” trees and plants ‘communicate’, transferring water and nutrients to each other[3].
Certain species of fungi also form associations with plant roots, improving plants’ ability to suck up essential nutrients from the soil; other types live inside plants without harming them, supporting their immunity to pathogens and resistance to stress. And of course, fungi are nature’s recyclers: excellent at decomposing rigid natural biomass including wood, plants and even chitin, aka, the major structural component in the exoskeletons of crustaceans (yes, aquatic fungi exist too)[4].


Mycelium networks. Source: Google Images.

Simply, fungi prop up and fortify the planet’s natural environments, which we, in turn, depend on. We are only beginning to comprehend how complex, diverse and vital, fungi are to life on Earth: the global research team determined that 2.5 million fungi have yet to be discovered, and that a teaspoon of soil can contain hundreds of different fungal species[5].

With the climate crisis progressing and natural environments deteriorating, fungi do, and will play an increasingly vital role in supporting our ecosystems. Perhaps the most masterly role that fungi can play in natural environments is that of healer. Through a phenomenon known as mycoremediation, fungi are used to degrade or isolate contaminants in soil. Mycoremediation can even be used on in soil contaminated with petroleum or diesel oil. A famous Washington experiment contaminated 4 patches of soil with a concentration of petrol, treating each with a different substance; after 16 weeks, while the other 3 showed no difference, the oyster mushroom mycelium-laced pile was covered in hundreds of enormous healthy mushrooms. The mushrooms found nutrition in the petrochemicals, turning them into healthy tissue and reducing the concentration of pollutants in the soil by 98%. The mushrooms attracted insects, then birds, which brought seeds, until the patch became a thriving oasis[6].


Source: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew ©.

Ranked by importance, after their heroic ability to sustain nature, the use of fungi as a food source is a close second. Mushrooms are a generally superb food group, rich in protein, dietary fibre, antioxidants, (many) vitamins and minerals, and low in carbohydrates and fat. And of course, many species are not only edible, but delicious.

Both nutritious and flavourful, mushrooms represent a powerful remedy to an ineffective and destructive global food system; worldwide, a third of all food produced is wasted whilst millions starve[7], the availability of fresh water and healthy soil is in rapid decline, and 75% of global forest loss (totalling 10 million hectares a year[8]) is driven by agricultural expansion – mostly for cattle farming and growing livestock feed[9].


Source: Andres Siimon via Unsplash.


Fungi growth patterns counteract each of these issues. Wild mushrooms obviously grow spontaneously without human input or resources, but to sustain growing populations, cultivated mushrooms hold the greatest potential. 

First, mushrooms require very little land for cultivation, very little water and no light source – they can grow in the dark. Compared to animals, they have an extremely high ratio of calories and protein yielded per land area, greatly reducing pressures to both deforest, and irrigate agricultural land[10]. Additionally, recent studies have even found that cultivating fungi in forests could sequester up to 12.8 tonnes of carbon per hectare, combatting climate change whilst producing food[11].
More significantly, mushrooms do not even need arable soil – they can be grown in waste: food scraps, straw, plant trimmings, coffee grounds, paper waste, sponges and even horse manure. This provides growers with endless possibilities to turn low-value waste into treasure. They also grow extremely fast, typically taking 3 to 4 weeks from inoculation of spores to harvest.


Mushroom farming. Source: Agrifarming.

Organic mushrooms mini-farm. Source: Smallhold Farms.


These traits drive the expansion of a burgeoning fungi industry, tackling global waste and fuelling a surge in smallholder and personal cultivation for self-sustenance. (Interested? Mycophiles – those who love all things mushroom – can check out the following examples, spotlighting independent growers and small businesses feeding the restaurant sector.

Essentially, mushrooms represent a relatively cheap, supremely ecological and nutritional alternative to animal proteins – and even some plants.

Second, the mycelium structures present in fungi have a unique texture, capable of replicating animal-based products with convincing accuracy and (often) healthier nutritional values. The global food tech industry has jumped on the opportunity: mycelium and mycelium-based protein, aka mycoprotein, are used to make alternative meat products like bacon, nuggets and minces, and to ‘grow’ alternative proteins like steak, with umami, juicy textures. Mushroom substrate and mycelium are also used to ferment plant-based products, making sushi-quality seafood without harming fish, creating alternative fats, food dyes and even cultures for blue cheese. In terms of taste, consumer feedback for mycelium-based products is consistently very positive – particularly if compared to veggie smush patties of years gone by. As slates of products continue to be tested and released, mushrooms continuously prove themselves to be a powerhouse food source: a healthy, flavourful, complete protein that mimics a range of foods, with a severely reduced environmental footprint. 


Mushroom bacon. Source: Libre Foods.

Mushroom tuna. Source: Aqua Cultured Foods.


This flourishing market for fungi food products is accompanied by a parallel expansion in the world of fungi supplements and medicines. Mushrooms have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Greek physician Hippocrates, circa 450 BCE, employed amadou mushrooms for their anti-inflammatory properties[12]. Indigenous North American tribes are documented as using puffball mushrooms to help cauterise wounds[13]. Multiple mushrooms species – shitake, cordyceps, reishi, turkey tail – have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and various folkloric Asian medicines for millennia[14]. But only recently have medicinal, or ‘functional’ mushrooms penetrated modern Western markets.

Over the past decade, functional mushrooms entered an engorged health and wellness scene, accompanied by a swathe of claims: antiallergic, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, antiviral, antidepressive – and that’s just the As. One would be justified in assuming that fungi supplements were the latest wellbeing fad. Yet, fungi’s medicinal and health properties are attributed to their concentration of bioactive compounds, aka small amounts of specific chemicals that take positive action in the body.


Source: Gina Sell via Unsplash.


Increased interest from the medical community, the health sector, and private individuals into natural medicines and mycotherapy has stimulated an uptick in scientific research into the health properties and efficacy of many different mushrooms.

Several studies have confirmed that particular species of mushroom demonstrate positive effects on immune response, fertility, energy, cancer cell growth, kidney function, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, brain function and heart health[15]. However, many of these are in vitro (carried out in test tubes) or are tested on mice, rather than humans. These studies are often cited by mushroom supplement companies, who then fabricate products with varied species, different doses of bioactive compound and different manufacturing processes – this lack of standardisation makes it impossible to ensure that every product is effective. Even more, the medicinal properties of a singular mushroom vary considerably depending on where and how it was grown, which part of the fruit was used and at what stage it was harvested[16].

Consequently, fungal scholars have proclaimed that many marketing companies are making claims for their supplements that far outstretch what science has proven. Of course, these supplements may support immune function, brain activity, virility etc., but they cannot promise to deliver these health benefits. So why focus on fungi’s healing properties?

While it difficult to certify the effectiveness of mushroom supplements available in store, clinical investigations constantly demonstrate enormous potential of mushrooms in therapeutic applications, specifically in oncology. Mushrooms are already used and continue to be used for their tried and tested support of cancer patients, showing immunomodulatory and anti-tumour actions, which complement traditional chemo- and radiotherapy. Mycotherapy has slowed tumour growth, reduced the side effects of chemical cancer drugs and reduced recovery times[17].
Source: Chulalongkorn University.


The medical and scientific communities have serious strides to make in researching, testing and developing standardised mushroom treatments – and we hope, one day, supplements – that address a whole range of health issues, but the mere fact that fungi are currently used successfully in cancer patients shows the potential that they hold for our future.
Climate change will profoundly impact health – it is even expected that climate change have a pointed impact on cancer development, increasing cancer risk through increased UV exposure, air pollution, toxic chemicals, heat and microplastics[18]. Both these challenges, and the fact that fungal scientists have yet to explore and utilise the full medicinal potential of mushrooms, emphasise just how crucial they will be in building a healthier future.  

Some final rousing (and definitely more light-hearted) evidence of the power of fungi lies in their ability to transform into a series of materials. Aforementioned mycelium structures are multitalented – they can be used to make textured meat proteins, but equally, can grow into all kinds of substance, often replacing poorly sustainable options with circular, biodegradable products.


Source: Google Images.


In 1958, Belgian comic Les Schtroumpfs – or The Smurfs, was launched, following the lives of a colony of tiny, blue, humanoid creatures living in houses made from mushrooms. These fictional houses may soon become reality: Italian company Mogu has developed a cutting-edge technology that uses agro-industrial waste to grow selected strains of mycelium into a material composite. This composite is used to make safe, durable, artistic wall panelling and flooring, thus creating building materials with a low-energy production process that are 100% plastic-free and biodegradable. At scale, this could revolutionise the construction industry and the way in which buildings impact the natural environment. Mogu also create VOC-free 3D acoustic panels that maximise sound absorption for different musical frequencies.

Fungi sound panelling. Source: Mogu.

Fungi packaging. Source: Mushroom Packaging, Ecovative.


Fungi has been transformed into dozens of materials and products. Mycelium can be grown from waste and feedstock residue into strong, biodegradable packaging capable of replacing non-recyclable styrofoam, into biodegradable lampshades, and into natural foams and leather-like hides that are completely free of chemicals, and present an alternative to energy-intensive animal or plastic products. Fungi is thus capable of reducing the environmental impact of our packaging, our furniture, and even the fashion industry.

One of the most intriguing uses of fungi materials is Loop Biotech. This Dutch company uses mycelium to make biodegradable coffins and urns, offering the dead the chance to “become part of nature and enrich the Earth”. The phrase ‘worm-food’ alludes to what we assume happens to us when we’re buried – we break down and feed the soil. However, traditional coffins (and the bodies placed inside) are often treated with paints, embalming fluids and inorganic chemicals, and contain metal and plastic fittings that take an infinity to biodegrade, polluting the soil as they do so[19]. These mycelium-based coffins and urns do the opposite, biodegrading in just 45 days, feeding local soil biodiversity and stimulating the growth of new seedlings. It is both moving and deeply important that companies are developing technologies and infrastructure that allow us to make conscious, planet-loving decisions even in death. Who would not use fungi to feed the environment once they’re gone, rather than burden it further?


Fungi coffin. Source: Loop.

The applications of fungi seem endless. Their powerful characteristics and ability to metamorphose into indispensable things makes them capable of fuelling dramatic changes across environments, lifestyles and industries. To list: their ecosystem-supporting, energy-reducing capabilities, their culinary and nutritional values, their potential for health and medicine, and their innate capability to transform into essential materials, are proof enough that fungi represent one the most exciting frontiers for climate action and the future. If you were not a mycophile at the start of this text, you should be now.





[1] Niskanen, T. et al. 2023. Pushing the Frontiers of Biodiversity Research: Unveiling the Global Diversity, Distribution, and Conservation of Fungi. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 48: 149-176. Available at: https://www.annualreviews.org/content/journals/10.1146/annurev-environ-112621-090937

[2] Holewenski, B. 2024. Underground Networking: The Amazing Connections Beneath Your Feet. National Forest Foundation. Available at: https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/underground-mycorrhizal-network

[3] Ibid.

[4] Niskanen, T. et al. 2023. Pushing the Frontiers of Biodiversity Research: Unveiling the Global Diversity, Distribution, and Conservation of Fungi. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 48: 149-176. Available at: https://www.annualreviews.org/content/journals/10.1146/annurev-environ-112621-090937

[5] Ibid; Kew (Royal Botanical Gardens). 2023. State of the World’s Plants and Fungi. Kew. Available at: https://www.kew.org/sites/default/files/2023-10/State%20of%20the%20World%27s%20Plants%20and%20Fungi%202023.pdf

[6] UW Dept. of Landscape Architecture, Sustainable Landscape Construction. 2010. Mycoremediation. Available at: https://depts.washington.edu/dislc/2010winter_mycoremediation/definition.htm#:~:text=Definition,polycyclic%20aromatic%20hydrocarbons%20(PAH)   

[7] Food and Agriculture Organization. 2013. Foot Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources. Available at: https://www.fao.org/3/i3347e/i3347e.pdf

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization. 2020. The State of the World’s Forests. Available at: https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/ca8642en

[9] Ritchie, H. 2021. Drivers of Deforestation. Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/drivers-of-deforestation

[10] Matei, A. 2022. Want to save the planet? Eat protein from mushrooms and algae instead of red meat. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jul/19/want-to-save-the-planet-eat-protein-from-mushrooms-and-algae-instead-of-red-meat

[11] University of Sterling. 2023. Growing mushrooms alongside trees could feed millions and mitigate effects of climate change, research finds. Available at: https://www.stir.ac.uk/news/2023/march-2023-news/growing-mushrooms-alongside-trees-could-feed-millions-and-mitigate-effects-of-climate-change-research-finds/#:~:text=Analysis%20by%20Professor%20Thomas%20found,19%20million%20people%20per%20year

[12] Stamets P., and Zwickey, H. 2014. Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies Meet Modern Science. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal (IMCJ), 13: 46-7. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684114/#:~:text=Our%20ancestors%20have%20used%20mushrooms,inflammatory%20and%20for%20cauterizing%20wounds

[13] National Park Service. 2020. Species Spotlight: Puffballs. Region 1 Inventory and Monitoring Division. National Park Service. Available at: https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/649297

[14] Venturella, G. et al. 2021. Medicinal Mushrooms: Bioactive Compounds, Use, and Clinical Trials. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 22: 634. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7826851/#sec5-ijms-22-00634title

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bernicker, E. et al. 2024. Climate Change and Cancer Care: A Policy Statement From ASCO. JCO Oncology Practice, 20: 178-186. Available at: https://ascopubs.org/doi/10.1200/OP.23.00637#:~:text=Climate%20change%20is%20associated%20with,disruption%20in%20cancer%20care%20itself.

[19] Earth Funeral. 2023. Table: How Your Funeral Impacts the Environment. Green Funeral Practice. Available at: https://earthfuneral.com/resources/table-how-your-funeral-impacts-the-environment/#:~:text=Buried%20embalming%20fluids%20give%20rise,in%20US%20burials%20each%20year.&text=Heavy%20wooden%20caskets%20are%20often,contain%20metal%20and%20plastic%20fittings

Title Image: Timothy Dykes via Unsplash.