MSU mushroom team looks to shine light on stereotypes of fungi
In a basement of the Molecular Plant Sciences Building, five people are working on producing mushrooms and fungi as part of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment, or RISE, program.
The mushroom and fungi team was founded in 2016 from an educational grant to spread more awareness about mushrooms and fungi in the community. It is one of many teams in the RISE program.
“That was back in the time where there were a lot more RISE students going for different grants,” president of the mushroom team Graham Smith said.
Smith, an environmental economics and management sophomore was drawn to join the team after finding mushrooms “really interesting” during his work for a nonprofit group the previous summer.
Smith’s colleague, environmental biology and zoology sophomore Oliver Autrey, said one of the reasons he joined the mushroom team was his family heritage.
“I come from a Polish immigrant family, so mushroom hunting is a huge thing,” Autrey said. “Ever since I can remember I was out going for morels, puffballs, really whatever (was) around.”
The mushroom team has several goals, such as possibly selling mushrooms in the future and putting on events to educate the public.
Smith said there are stereotypes around fungus, which create “barriers” from people wanting to learn about fungus.
“You don’t go to a zoo and you don’t go to see the fungus, you go to see the animals and sometimes plants,” Smith said. “There’s not a zoo for fungus … you don’t really get to hear a lot about fungus on its own.”
Smith said fungi are a “third kingdom” because they have characteristics of both plants and animals.
Autrey said one of the reasons people think poorly of fungi is because of their “dirty (and) dark” looks and that fungi decompose things such as flesh.
“They’re a great food staple, they’re really healthy proteins,” Autrey said. “If we can kind of change that mindset and people realize how good of a sustainable food source it is, that’s definitely what we’re pushing for.”
Still, this isn’t true throughout the world, as some cultures have used mushrooms for several things, including cancer treatments.
“Years ago when I started selling (mushrooms) back in the early 90s … people didn’t know what shiitake was, and I explained that’s a mushroom you get in your hot and sour soup,” adviser of the team Chris Wright said. “Thirty years forward, people are asking them by name. Mushrooms are becoming more mainstream, people are becoming more aware of their health benefits or medicinal benefits. We’re becoming more comfortable with the idea here in the west.”
To help integrate the use of mushrooms at MSU, the mushroom team is hosting an event at the Rock on Farm Lane and having a food truck that serves burgers that are “half beef, half fungus.”
“I think it’s better than just purely mushroom burgers because it really shows the actual water impact or water footprint,” Smith said. “So I think actually giving back to the community and showing them, ‘Here, this is what we grew ourselves, with our adviser's support of course, in our lab and this is how they work.’ Just trying to promote that passage of knowledge, that’s why I would want to sell to the large community.”
The group's passion for trying to grow their own mushrooms and spread the knowledge of mushrooms, Wright said, has impressed him.
“These guys are taking an interest and they’re showing an effort,” Wright said. “We're kind of letting them do their own thing, but providing instruction, but letting them kind of explore it a little bit. Sounds like they’re having a lot of fun, so it’s cool.”