- Mushroom mycelium is the underground network of thread-like structures that make up 90% of a mushroom.
- Mycelium absorbs nutrients from plant matter and provides structural support for mushrooms.
- All mushrooms, whether culinary or medicinal, have mycelium as their essential underground component.
- Mushroom mycelium is rich in antioxidants like ergothioneine and glutathione, which protect cells and reduce inflammation.
- It contains infection-fighting beta-glucans, stimulates the immune system, and is a source of complete protein.
- Mycelium has innovative applications in packaging, textiles, and construction.
- Mycelium plays a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance in nature.
Mushrooms have been used for thousands of years by many ancient cultures because of their health and medicinal properties. But in the West, we've only just begun to understand how to leverage these powerful nutritional powerhouses.
We're learning, for instance, how to test the constituents, or essential parts, of different mushrooms and how they work. We've also made progress in learning how to effectively grow mycelium, the mushroom's life support system, artificially in the lab.
In this article, we cover everything you need to know about mushroom mycelium, including what it is, how to grow it, its many health benefits, and some common questions people often ask about it.
So, What Exactly Is Mushroom Mycelium?
What you see on the surface with mushrooms is literally the tip of the iceberg. 90% of a typical mushroom exists underground, and this underground portion is called mycelium, which is like the root system of a mushroom.
Mushroom mycelium is a dense network of microscopic-sized thread-like structures that spread across the soil. Each thread is called a hypha, so a collection of hyphae (plural of hypha) is called a mycelium.
Mycelium plays a crucial role in the different stages of development of a mushroom. It serves as the foundation from which the mushroom emerges, helping it absorb nutrients and water that nourish the mushroom as it grows and matures in nature.
From the outside, mycelium can look like a mass of cream-coloured spider webs meshed together. It can be found in other places, not just in soil. You can find it growing in or around organic substrates like wood. In nature, a substrate is a surface to which an organism attaches itself to grow and receive nutrients.
What Does Mycelium on Mushrooms Do?
Mushrooms, as a fungal organism, need food to grow and survive. But they can't use the organic material around them in their natural forms without breaking them down into simpler bioactive compounds they can absorb and use.
The thread-like structures called hyphae in the mycelium produce substances called enzymes. These enzymes break down food sources found in the soil or wood into smaller components that are then absorbed through the walls of the hyphae.
When food sources start to dwindle, the hyphae, indicative of fungal growth, extend outward so they can search for more food sources.
A single mycelium will produce many mushrooms, and it can last for years.
Aside from sourcing food, the mycelial network also works like a physical structure that can hold the mushrooms in place until they die out. The mushrooms, in the meantime, release millions of microscopic seeds called spores into the air. The spores get carried by wind currents and make their home in moist substrates growing new hyphae in the process.
Do All Mushrooms Have Mycelium?
Yes, all mushrooms have mycelium. From your classic culinary varieties like oyster mushroom, shiitake and porcini through to your more medicinal types such as turkey tail, lion’s mane and reishi - all fruiting bodies come from mycelium.
The mycelium is the essential underground part of the mushroom that sources nutrients for it to survive and holds the mushroom structure in place.
How is Mushroom Mycelium Important to the Wider Ecosystem?
The mycelial network isn’t just useful for mushrooms. They play a lot of important roles in the wider ecosystem too.
One of their primary roles is to help to decompose organic matter, recycling valuable nutrients back into the environment.
They also form symbiotic relationships with many other organisms, including plants. In return for food and shelter, mycelium provides these partners with essential nutrients, water, and other benefits.
Mushroom Mycelium vs. the Fruiting Body — What's the Difference?
Sometimes you will find that mushroom mycelium is often confused with what’s called the fruiting body when it comes to health-supporting benefits. There’s also some debate over which one’s better.
The mycelial network consists of white or cream-coloured, thread-like structures that live underneath the ground, while the mushroom fruiting body is the visible part of the mushroom above the ground that you often see sold in supermarkets and stores.
Both the mycelium and the fruiting body provide health benefits.
Mycelium vs Mould on Mushrooms — What's the Difference?
Mycelium is the beneficial, thread-like network that forms the foundation of mushrooms. In contrast, mould on mushrooms is usually harmful, presenting as fuzzy, discoloured patches, and can spoil the fungi. It's important to note that mushrooms themselves can indeed grow mould if not properly cared for, affecting their quality and edibility. While mycelium is essential for mushroom development, mould is a nuisance that can occur on the surface of mushrooms.
What Are the Mycelium Mushroom Benefits?
Well, the answer to this can vary depending on the species of mushroom we are talking about - but generally speaking, mushroom mycelium is a rich source of antioxidants and polysaccharides, which many believe offer various health benefits.
Consuming mushroom mycelium may help boost the immune system, improve digestion, and reduce inflammation and a number of varieties of specific mushroom mycelium are used as a natural remedy for various ailments, such as colds, flu, and anxiety.
While more research is needed to confirm these potential health benefits, consuming mushroom mycelium is generally considered safe (as long as it’s from mushrooms safe for human consumption) and it may offer some valuable nutrients.
Mushroom mycelium is generally a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, selenium, copper, and zinc. It is also a good source of protein and dietary fibre.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into some of the benefits that are found in most mycelium, regardless of the mushroom species:
Mushroom mycelium is a great source of antioxidants
One of the most impressive health benefits of mushroom mycelium is its high antioxidant content. Antioxidants are important for fighting free radicals, which are damaging molecules that can cause inflammation and lead to disease.
Mushroom mycelium is rich in two powerful antioxidants, ergothioneine and glutathione, which have been indicated to help protect cells from damage and reduce inflammation.
Mushroom mycelium contains infection-fighting beta-glucans
In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, mushroom mycelium is also a natural source of beta-glucans.
Beta-glucans are a type of fibre that has been shown to help stimulate immune function. This is important for people who are susceptible to infections, as a strong immune system can help to fight off illness.
Mushroom mycelium is a rich source of protein
The mycelium is composed of a network of fine white filaments. These filaments are responsible for the absorption of nutrients from the substrate on which the mushroom grows. When dried, mushroom mycelium powder contains approximately 30% protein.
Mushroom mycelium is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all of the essential amino acids our bodies need. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and they perform a variety of functions in our bodies, including helping to build muscle tissue and repair damaged cells.
There are many different types of mushrooms, but not all of them are a source of protein. For example, the popular edible mushroom known as the button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) does not contain any detectable amounts of protein.
Mushroom mycelium is low in fats
Mushrooms are low in fat and calories. The mycelium contains about 3-4% fat by weight. This is similar to the fat content of other vegetables like broccoli or Brussel sprouts.
So, if you are looking for a low-fat source of protein and fibre, mushrooms are a good choice.
Mycelium as other materials
Mycelium's applications extend far beyond the scope of health benefits, offering innovative solutions in various industries. For example:
- Packaging: In the packaging industry, mycelium serves as a sustainable packaging solution. It's biodegradable and can grow in agricultural waste, offering a green alternative to plastic and polystyrene.
- Textile: The properties of mycelium allow it to serve as a leather alternative. You can mold it into different shapes and textures, paving the way for new and innovative ways to approach fashion and interior design.
- Construction: Mycelium stands out as a green building material. It's strong but lightweight and uses less energy than traditional materials like concrete. Plus, it's great for soundproofing and won't release toxic fumes if it catches fire.
So, mycelium offers new and innovative ways to tackle challenges in health, packaging, textiles, and construction. It's a versatile and sustainable material that holds promise for future innovations.
How to Grow Mushroom Mycelium
Growing organic mushrooms at home is a simple, and relatively easy process that anybody can do.
If you're interested in learning the techniques to grow mushroom mycelium, one effective method is using grain spawn.
By incorporating grain spawn into your mushroom cultivation, you introduce a nutrient-rich substrate used to nurture the mycelium effectively. This substance acts as a seed for the growth of healthy mycelium networks, which are the foundation for mushroom development.
By following these guides, you'll learn how to cultivate your own mycelium, and with the right conditions, the mycelium will grow and flourish into bountiful mushroom harvests.
Check these guides out if you’d like to grow some yourself!
Are Mushroom Spores Dangerous?
Mushroom spores can have harmful effects on humans if you are excessively exposed.
Many mushroom spores are microscopic in size and can easily enter the lungs. Spores can also contain significant amounts of mycotoxins which are toxic compounds naturally produced by fungi, like mushrooms.
The inhalation of spores has been linked to respiratory conditions such as toxic pneumonitis, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. It can also lead to other medical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, kidney failure, and even cancer.
Some people, especially people with asthma, can be allergic to fungal spores.
If you’re planning to grow mushrooms, it’s important to seek expert advice and follow proper precautions to eliminate the risks. When growing mushrooms at home:
- Choose a dark, damp location located away from common living spaces, for example, the basement.
- Regularly sterilize all your equipment and tools.
- Wear an air mask and use a still air box (SAB) to minimize exposure to airborne spores.
Can I Buy Mushroom Mycelium?
Yes, you can! If you’re looking to buy mycelium to produce fruiting mushrooms - I recommend checking out Life Cykel Grow Boxes.
If you’re looking to buy mycelium-based supplements that are ready to take for their medicinal properties - then check out Host Defence.
What Is Mushroom Mycelium Used For?
Well, first and foremost - mushroom mycelium is key for growing mushrooms. Without it, we’d have no mushrooms in the world!
Aside from this, mushroom mycelium has several benefits for human and planetary health (which we’ve listed in more detail earlier in this article, scroll up!). Mushroom mycelium also has many applications for humans in the biomedical, cosmetic, paper, packaging, textile, and construction industries due to its unique properties.
They also have a super important role in maintaining the delicate ecological balance in nature - probably their most important role.
Do Mushrooms Have Roots?
Technically no, mushrooms do not have roots, however, fungal mycelium acts as the rough equivalent of roots if you're looking for a comparison. Similar to roots for plants, mycelium's vast network performs the function of holding the mushroom in place in the soil, while also providing it with nutrients.
Can You Eat Mushroom Mycelium?
Yes, mycelium meat can be consumed, but it's less commonly eaten compared to the fruiting bodies of mushrooms. Some mushroom growers use both mycelium and fruiting bodies in culinary dishes, but the mycelium's texture and taste differ from the more familiar mushroom caps and stems. The mycelium is best used for its medicinal benefits and as a substrate to produce mushrooms.
The Bottom Line:
Mushroom mycelium is a hugely important factor in many ecosystems - running as an interconnected sort of ‘neural network’ in the soil connecting everything together.
It can be thought of in simple terms as the ‘roots’ of a mushroom in relation to a mushroom's structure, however, it has quite a different form.
As an edible substance for humans (and even dogs), it has a dense nutritional profile that can offer a range of different health benefits - particularly if it’s the mycelium of a medicinal mushroom.
To finish up, the mycelia master himself, Paul Stamets, has produced an excellent video giving some great details on the ins and outs of mushroom mycelium. Highly recommend you give it a quick watch!