Before Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin wrote Tuf Voyaging, the darkly comic tale of a solo space traveler zipping from planet to planet with his own unique brand of problem solving. His magic weapon? Mushrooms. As far-fetched as it sounds, fungi are the perfect long-distance travel companion. In the right environment, spores keep indefinitely and are small enough that you could pack an entire farm on a postage stamp. Looking toward to the future and our inevitable trek to the outer reaches of space, mushrooms might just be the ticket we need to get off the planet.
In fact, we’ve already given zero-gravity mushroom growing a shot. In 1993, cultures of Flammulina velutipes were sent into orbit on the joint Space Shuttle Columbia/Spacelab D-2 mission. As observed by amateur mycologists, mushrooms tend to grow as a veiled cap atop a long, spindly stem. Remove gravity from the equation, however, and the mushrooms grow in every direction. Gills flipped inside-out like windblown umbrellas, and mushrooms fruited in every orientation imaginable. The results were promising. The mushrooms grew unexpectedly, yet still produced fruit under off-world conditions. Though the experiment lasted just long enough to make these observations, we’ll need to push our fungal gardening experiments further if we aim to observe how zero gravity affects mushroom growth.
Fungi tech here on Earth has grown by leaps and bounds in the past couple decades. Mycoprotein is a vegetarian meat substitute, originally developed to combat food shortages, made from Mycelium—not the fruit, but the tiny white strands that act as a sort of root for mushrooms. Nutritious protein as a blank canvas. For now, you can find it amongst the faux meats in your grocer’s freezers, formed and flavored into shapes like bacon, burgers and chicken-less nuggets.
Fungi also have the amazing ability to transmute their surroundings into more fungi, gobbling up everything from rotting forest logs to actual plastics, transforming them into useful byproducts. Mycologist Ross uses a particularly fast-growing fungus to transform waste into preformed building blocks, constructing super-strong water, mold and fire-resistant building materials. Other researchers have transformed polyurethane waste into artsy and edible serving dishes, using the mushrooms’ natural ability to grow into nearly any shape or form.
Assuming we’re still utilizing combustion for space flight, we’ll want to pack some Gyromitra esculenta (False Morel) along for the ride. This fungus produces Gyromitrin, which, through hydrolysis, yields Monomethylhydrazine: rocket propellant. Certain species produce more subtle compounds and aromas such as coconut, fenugreek and even maple syrup. Species like the Candy Cap could even be used to flavor our pancakes, or provide a unique flavor to space-brewed beer. When you think of all the resources the average maple tree needs to produce a mere pancake’s worth of syrup, a small garden of Candy Caps seems like the best green alternative.
Beyond food and utility, there are plenty of examples of mushrooms being used for their medicinal properties. A research paper by The Department of Medical Nutrition in South Korea details the Chaga mushroom’s ability to protect DNA, act as an antiviral and help with blood clotting. The utilities of the mushroom make it uniquely suited for long-distance travel, and its applications could even help heal us from space travel hazards such as radiation.
And psychedelic fungi could do more than help pass the time on these long voyages. A recent study from Imperial College London found that psilocybin was highly effective at treating depression, with 12 out of 12 subjects experiencing a major reduction in depression symptoms, and five of 12 being completely cured of their depression three months later. Aside from the transcendent experiences that psilocybin can induce, researchers have also found they can be used to treat a variety of mental and behavioral disorders. Microdosing (taking a just-noticeable dose) has been shown to decrease anxiety, increase focus and enhance creativity.
These substances might even help us stay young or slow the aging process. Findings by the University of South Florida showed that psilocybin stimulated the growth and repair of brain cells in the hippocampus of lab mice. Pioneering scientists have taken this to heart and are now dosing themselves with small amounts of Niacin, Psilocybin and Lion’s Mane mushrooms, describing invigorated mental states that remind them of their youth.
The mushroom’s ability to cope with space’s weird atmosphere, their positive effect on our health and wellness, ease of growth and never-ending appetite make them the ideal candidate to join our race to outer space. Perhaps someday our great grandkids will be sitting on a seat made of mycelium fibers, munching a mushroom “pepperoni” pizza, hurtling through space on a high-octane fuel of ‘shroom juice.