Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can Mushrooms Save the World?

A mycelium (plural mycelia) is the vegetative part of a fungus and consists of a mass of branching, thread-like tendrils called hyphae [1]. Fungal colonies composed of mycelia are found in soil and on or in many other substrates. Usually, a single spore germinates into a monokaryotic mycelium which cannot reproduce sexually; however, when two compatible monokaryotic mycelia join and form a dikaryotic mycelium, that mycelium may form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms. A mycelium may be minute, forming a colony that is too small to see, or it may be extensive, as in the following quote:

Is this the largest organism in the world? This 2,400-acre (9.7 km2) site in eastern Oregon had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees. Mushroom-forming forest fungi are unique in that their mycelial mats can achieve such massive proportions.

Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running [2]

It is through the mycelium that a fungus can absorb nutrients from its environment, which it does via a two stage process. Firstly the hyphae secrete enzymes onto a food source, which break down polymers into monomer units, which are then absorbed into the mycelium by processes of active transport and facilitated diffusion. In both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, mycelium plays a vital role in the decay of plant matter, and it contributes to the organic component of soil releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere as it grows. The mycelium of mycorrhizal fungi acts in symbiosis with a plant whose roots it has colonised, and acts as a conduit for water and nutrients such a phosphorus to the plant, receiving in return sugars from the plant which it produces through photosynthesis [3]. Some resistance is conferred also against plant pathogens by mycelium, and which also provides a food-source for many soil invertebrates - beetles and worms, etc.

Since one of the primary roles of fungi in an ecosystem is to decompose organic compounds, it is proposed that fungi have the potential to clean-up pollutants such as petroleum (oil) and pesticides from the environment as part of a bioremediation strategy. Indeed, Paul Stamets has proposed that there are "6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World", in a recent lecture [4], from which I have summarised the following:

He proposes that the Earth has now entered the sixth major extinction cycle (6X) on the planet and it is debatable whether humans will survive or not. Mycelium infuses all landscapes, is extremely tenacious and can bind together 30,000 times its own mass of soil. They give rise to the humus soils across the continents of the earth. Amazingly there is a multi-directional transfer of nutrients between plants, mitigated by mycelium - thus the mycelium is the "mother" that gives nourishment from alder and birch trees to hemlocks, cedars and Douglas firs.

Humans are related closely to the mycelia, and we both inhale oxygen and exhale CO2. Indeed, we are closer to fungi than we are to any other kingdom of life. A group of 20 biologists researching into eukarotic microbes published a paper two years ago in which was proposed "opisthokonta": a super-kingdom that connects animalia and fungi. Indeed, humans and fungi share the same pathogens. Since fungi resist the action of bacteria through natural antibiotics, our best antibiotic drugs come from fungi. It is only having spored (sporulation) that fungi rot, and the sequence of microbes that grow on rotting mushrooms are vital for the overall health of the forest. The microbes give rise to the trees and create the debris fields that feed the mycelium, which spreads underground. In a single cubic inch of soil there can be more than eight miles of cells.

Fungi were the first organisms to come onto land some 1.3 billion years ago, followed by plants several hundred million years afterwards. The two realms are connected mechanistically: namely that the mycelium produces oxalic acid (two CO2 molecules joined together) and many other kinds of acid and enzymes. The acids produced react with rock and form calcium oxalate and other salts, which causes the rock to crumble and is the first step in the generation of soil. Hence fungi and mycelium sequester CO2 in the form of calcium oxalate.

Specifically, the six solutions are:

(1) To decompose diesel and other petroleum waste - e.g. as in an oil spill. Notably, the mushrooms grow happily and decompose even toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). The ecosystem is restored too, since the fungi act as vanguard species that provide a way in for other biological communities.

(2) As biological filters called "bunker spawn" to remove E.coli or other biological undesirables, from downstream water from farms or factories. Mycelium can also be used to filter silt from runoff from logging roads.

(3) Mycelium and its metabolites are active against smallpox viruses and both flu A viruses - H1N1, H3N2 - and flu B viruses. In a blend combination, a selectivity index of greater than 1,000 was found against H5N1.

(4) Extracts of mycelium are powerful insecticides, and are active against carpenter ants, termites and fire ants, which has huge implications to prevent insects from eating wood-framed houses.

(5) Paul Stamets has invented the Life Box, which is a means for producing various seeds, fungi, crops, beans or corn, or even an old growth forest, in which is initially supplied shoes, say, but unlike the standard lifeless "cardboard box" which may simply be recycled as cardboard, the corrugated structure of the life box having been priorly seeded, it thus generates new plant life if simply put outside and watered.

(6) In the latter example, the mycelium converts cellulose into fungal sugars, and so offers the potential for ethanol production from the sugars. The "fuel" is called Econol. Growing mycelium in soils helps to regenerate the soil and acts as a carbon storage system.

There is much to be recommended here and I feel that mycelia could be a useful member of the biological arsenal with which to restore soil health and capture unwanted atmospheric carbon, along with other methods of regenerative agriculture, and also to produce useful chemicals without the need for oil as the raw feedstock.

Related Reading.





Thursday, July 16, 2009

We Need Good Polytechnics - not Bad Universities.

"University Shambles" is the title of my recent novel ( which is a black comedy but it does satire some of the worst developments in the vastly expanded and rejigged university system, as noted by a recent reviewer:

“A highly amusing insight into the university sector as it has recently expanded relentlessly under government edict. It presents a devastating picture of the extent to which the notion of scholarship has been betrayed by a culture of managerialism, where the mediocre is airbrushed into ‘excellence’, and achievement in research is subordinated to the spurious concept of‘ ‘academic leadership’ to engineer bogus professorships for the unworthy. One’s heart bleeds for the unfortunate hero lured by an unscrupulous vice-chancellor to throw in his lot with an institution where academic subjects are forced into an endless cycle of mergers with business-orientated units and his research belittled by envious superiors. One wishes only that we are given here a parody of life in some institutions – no such luck. A thoroughly good read, but best taken with a large scotch at hand to dull the pain as Charles’ life unravels.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, and it’s all really rather sad. In principle, the idea of expanding access to higher education seems like a move of great social progress, but when thousands of graduates leave somewhere now called a university with a degree that does not fit them for the “world of work” (WoW), and having inherited a massive debt to boot, it is dubious that the opportunities of the young have been enhanced at all, and probably the reverse is the case. One vice chancellor is noted recently as saying that the university system is “no longer fit for purpose” and his university has now introduced a WoW course which teaches fledgling graduates among other things the importance of setting an alarm clock to get out of bed on time in the morning. Good for him in tackling the situation, but it does rather make an indictment of what the system has become.

Prior to 1992, there were polytechnics and universities and the two brands of institution had not been forged for a single purpose. The polys were excellent at their job and more practically based than the universities, and tended, having arisen from agglomerations of local colleges of technology, teacher training, agriculture and maybe business and the arts, to train their students to work in industry, and indeed had good connexions with local industry. The universities were autonomous institutions, with a strong commitment to academic freedom, but sadly in recent years more than one professor has been evicted by one means or another for voicing their opinion not only on what has happened to higher education but other matters too, which had been taken as a breach of confidence especially if the “university” they worked for had some vested interests in them.

The title “professor” is an issue in its own right, and indeed the right of entitlement to it. In the vastly expanded university system, there are professors with little or no credibly published work and yet they are supposed to be professor of a material subject such as “chemical education”, "evolutionary biology" or the like. This sounds good until someone looks into the credentials of such people and if an investigative journalist were to do that it would look highly embarrassing both for the individual and the university. However, many former polytechnics, in their attempt to become universities as they were urged to do in 1992, seem to have handed out the title and also the second in line to it - Reader - to members of staff for academic leadership (i.e. being head of department) or other more vague reasons, so that the accepted meaning of these titles is becoming devalued or lost entirely in some cases.

On inspection of the “criteria for promotion to reader and professor” at some universities, indeed research as measured by publications in internationally renowned journals is subordinated to perhaps fourth on the list below administration, academic leadership, course-design and so on. All are an essential part of a professor’s job but prior to 1992, without serious scholarship in evidence such an elevation would have been unthinkable; now it is commonplace. There are subjects too, such as Pharmacy Practice, where in order to attract someone from the profession - i.e. who has practised as a pharmacist - the only way that this kind of salary can be matched is to award them a professorship, even though they may have very weak scholastic accomplishments indeed. This sadly is the case even in some of the older and more established universities, not just ex-polys. The latter must appear particularly galling to members of staff in other subjects like physics and chemistry who despite excellent publication records and other internationally recognised measures of academic worth, are held-back on the reader scale for years and denied a professorship.

There has never been a time when Britain needs its higher education more than now. We are in the gravest economic peril, and probably the world is now at the end of capitalism with relentless growth no longer possible. As both oil and gas become rapidly more expensive and more scarce, revamping our farms to run on sustainable agriculture rather than oil-based fuels and fertilizers made from natural gas, providing as much energy as is possible from renewables, and most importantly developing the means for living which use far less energy are key to the survival of the nation. Bringing all of this about will take a great volume of such practical skills as were dispensed excellently by the polytechnics and their forerunner colleges, and we need a return to down to earth establishments like this, rather than “new universities” who are awarding degrees in media, psychology, football studies and so on, due to the government’s bums on seats funding policies.

The polytechnics should be fully reinstated with pride, and funded accordingly: we need good polys, not bad universities.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Human Population and the Earth’s Resources.

Part 5. of an essay on Global Warming with A. Koewius, put here for comments.

While accepting that the earth-system is a complex set of interacting mechanisms that transport heat from the equator and tropics toward the cooler polar regions, the influence of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere is expected to cause an accompanying elevation in the Mean Global Temperature (MGT) as its concentration increases. At the outset of this project, one of us (CJR) had looked askance at the geological record of temperature over time and felt unconvinced by the argument that humans were entirely culpable for rising CO2 levels and that in any case, there were profound periodicities in the temperature and CO2 levels over time. In particular, that every 100,000 years, an interglacial maximum occurs, during which the earth warms by 10 or more degrees as a mean, and the level of CO2 and indeed methane increase in accord with this. After perhaps 10,000 - 20,000 years the interglacial period comes abruptly to an end and the next ice-age ensues. This and other cycles is evident from ice-core samples taken over the past 750,000 years, extending to depths of three or more kilometres.

On detailed inspection, an unexpected result emerges and which is counterintuitive to the commonly understood global-warming model in which increases in CO2 act as a forcing factor to a rise in the planetary temperature. Indeed, it is found that there is a lag in converse to this notion: that the earth first begins to warm out of the ice-age and the atmospheric gases then increase in concentration; not the reverse. Global warming “deniers” (as is not too strong a term to use to label them, given the white heat of emotion that has entered the subject, and the huge amounts of money involved both in terms of grants for climate modelling research and far more the costs of various carbon-elimination schemes) often cite this as evidence that the GW model is wrong and that the earth may well be heating-up but by some unspecified mechanism that is unconnected with the levels of Carbon in the atmosphere. However, it is clear that the elevation in CO2 levels during the past half-century correlates closely with the mass of fossil carbon, burned in the form of coal, oil and natural gas during this same period, of which natural carbon sinks absorb around 40%. That the excess carbon originates from fossil sources is further supported by a decreasing ratio of atmospheric 13C/12C carbon isotopes.

To be sure, there are many uncertainties in detail, and we will only know the truth about climate change when the experiment has been fully conducted in real time, i.e. only those living in the year 2100 will know what the climate is like then. All else is theory, as is true of the present effort as discoursed in this essay. Nonetheless, if the degree of global warming is likely to be as severe (up to 6 degrees Centigrade) as some models predict, with attendant catastrophic effects on global climate, we are left with a question almost like bookmakers’ odds, as to how much we are prepared to gamble on the race - the survival of the human race and its civilization.

The betting-odds as defined by a scientific “consensus” - if there can ever be such a thing in the methodology of real science - are that we must make drastic cuts in our emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, or face unparalleled perils for humanity. However, it is not a single horse we need to review the pedigree of, in making our bets, since the business of whether we curb our carbon emissions is not simply a matter of choice but it is inevitable that we must burn less carbon, for the underpinning reason that fossil resources such as oil, gas and coal are available in only limited amount; hence their supply will fail our relentless demand for them, in short order - a mere “spike” in terms of the longevity of human civilization.

There is an Arab proverb that goes something like: “My grandfather rode a camel; my father drove a car; I ride a jet-plane; my son will ride a camel.” In an amusingly quirky way this points to the essential consequences of what has been dubbed “peak oil”, but peaks are appearing for many other resources, of energy in the form of gas, coal and uranium, and of many other pivotal elements upon which a population of 6.7 billion has grown. Simply put, there are too many of us and thus we are using-up too much of the earth’s resources too fast. It has been estimated that if each member of this vast population of species lived at a U.S. level of consumption, it would take 5 “earths” to provide for them, and the figure is not so much lower - and far in excess of this single earth that we have in reality - for all other Western countries.

Yet, in the illusion of limitless growth, which is the fundamental tenet of capitalism, each of the vastly populous developing nations such as China, India and others in Asia and South America, aspires to this collective absurdity, which even the present “haves” in the industrialised West cannot maintain for much longer; let alone that the “have nots” draw similarly on the bestowal of the planet, laid down millennia past. If we accept that we must use less fossil fuels, an action that assists both purposes of curbing carbon emissions, in the interests of mitigating climate change, and of putting the brakes on getting through them too fast, we step into the quagmire of how we are to go about this in practical terms. In the midst of the present recession, all attention certainly at governmental level across the world, is beamed onto how we can “restart growth”. Perhaps we can’t. Maybe we are witnesses to the end of capitalism and we need to converge our efforts - with the remaining resources available to us - upon a truly sustainable plan, which the status quo of “growth” and any projections based on it is not.

It is chilling that if a logistic function is fitted to global population statistics - albeit that the rate of growth is in decline; but the population is still growing - similar to that which may be applied to resource depletion e.g. oil, a peak in population occurs in the year 2028 at 7.1 billion (not much more than there are of us now), and then the numbers fall dramatically to 2.5 billion by 2100. This flies in the face of the predicted “over 9 billion by 2050” given by the WHO in an effort to encourage us to breed less. Almost certainly, a peak scenario of this kind, if real, will be a mirror of a peak and decline of the resources that such a huge population is dependent on to exist. Thus, even controlling population, as must be done, is a choice out of our hands. Even feeding so many may prove impossible, let alone that all meet a Western standard of living.

The issue of food production applies to the industrialised developed nations in the West perhaps more than anywhere else, since we have grown to depend on an industrialised system of agriculture which relies entirely on oil for tractor fuel and natural gas to make artificial nitrogenous fertilizers, since the quality of soil has fallen to a level that it would be effectively “dead” without constant external inputs of fertilizers, and useless to grow anything on. Without oil, we have no working farms, and even rock phosphate which is the basis of phosphorus fertilizers peaked over 20 years ago - thus our methods of food production, the most fundamental essential for human survival is living on borrowed time. Clearly, we must break our dependence on fossil resources, of all kinds.

There are many who are persuaded that no fundamental changes in lifestyle, in the West at least, are necessary. In the U.S. the car is king, in part due to the large distances routinely traversed in getting to work and the need to escape from urban dormitories to find amenities like schools, shops etc. Europe is not so much different, and air-travel too is a normal feature of life both for business and pleasure. Those who might also be quite appropriately called “deniers” - to the resource dearth issue - comfort themselves that we will simply switch from and oil-based economy to a hydrogen economy, or a totally electrified system with personal transport preserved in either scenario. This is unlikely in the short term, or ever, since the provision of fossil fuels, most pressingly oil, is under imminent threat, and there is insufficient time remaining to inaugurate and install anything close to 600 million vehicles as currently grace the world’s highways. Hydrogen powered and electric planes are unlikely to ever be a serious contender and all in all, a relocalisation of society appears on the cards, from the increasingly global to one that uses far less transport. If the loss of oil and gas is forced upon us abruptly, the result will be anarchy, since we will suddenly be without mechanisms for food production and distribution and the means to earn money with which to buy what is available.

The issue of time is almost criminally negligent, since even ignoring M. King Hubbert’s “peak oil” warning of 1956, when he worked for the Shell Development Company, the later oil-shocks of the 1970s made clear the vulnerability of the West upon the price and availability of cheap oil. In 1973, the Arab OPEC nations decided to punish the West for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur (also called the Ramadan) War, and by closing its valves by a mere 5%, the price of oil shot up by 400%. The Iran Iraq conflict in 1979 had a similar effect due to a reduction in the supply of cheap oil onto the world markets. Oil and economies are inextricably linked and it has been speculated that the hike in the price of a barrel of oil to nearly $150 triggered the stock market crash last summer (2008) and augered-in the present recession. The price of oil is now around $70 again per barrel, up from around $25 only a few months ago, and a further crash is on the cards if it rises once more toward its previous high. There were various projects begun in the 1970s to find substitutes for oil, including making oil from algae, which is enjoying a renaissance - but once cheap oil came back onto the markets, the incentive for such alternatives evaporated and many (such as the US Algal Oil project) were discontinued on grounds of cost. If the price of oil rises above $100 a barrel some of these schemes, including the environmentally filthy fabrication of synthetic “oil” from the tar sands, and getting “oil” by cracking primordial kerogen from “oil shale”, will become economically appealing .

None of these schemes will come on-stream quickly enough to compensate for the loss of conventional crude oil within a decade or so however and they will cost a fortune, given the unparalleled swathe of “new” engineering that would be necessitated. In the short order, it is the depletion of resources that is the greatest threat to humanity, with the effect of global warming perhaps as some future legacy to be reaped as a driver of climate change. On account of all the above, we need to move away from carbon based fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

The end sight is easy to envisage, on some ideal horizon of optimism. i.e. We give-up on the idea of the global supermarket and focus on local food production and economies, thus needing less in the way of fuel ab initio. Methods of regenerative agriculture (permaculture) are key in this respect, and it is estimated that 40% of human carbon emissions could be captured by soil if it were farmed using regenerative methods - e.g. deliberately moving around herds of grazing animals and growing cover crops. “Forest gardens”, which involve a symbiosis of species-diversity capture N and P nutrients naturally via a mixture of flora and fauna working in an interacting holistic ecology. Probably we cannot solve all our energy and resource problems nor support 7 billion people, but a planned way-down from our peak of excess is the only way to mitigate anarchy and the loss of the fruits of humanity, rather than the fearsome population crash that is sometimes called a “die-off”. It is this uneasy transition that poses the real challenge.