Fungi have a well-deserved surge in popularity. More mushroom varieties have found their way to grocery store shelves, shopping lists, and food blogs. Mushroom foraging is a trending activity as people endeavor to connect to nature. There is a growing market of mushroom coffee shops touting health-related boosts and “medicinal fungi” being sold as herbal teas and supplements. Innovative products have hit the market, from fungal spores creating eco-friendly living coffins for green burials to 100 percent biodegradable and cost-effective packaging solutions. According to the pioneering mycologist Paul Stamets, mushrooms can do incredible things, including treating smallpox and flu viruses as described in his TED talk, Six Ways That Mushrooms Can Save the World.
A dark side has also emerged. In television, HBO’s Last of Us sparked intrigue and fear with its world-collapsing zombie fungus. Though numerous media outlets quickly eased fears, explaining that the real-life Cordyceps fungus only affects certain insects, there are real fungal threats to human health that get little attention.
The kingdom of Fungi, with an upper boundary of an estimated 3.8 million species, is incredibly diverse. And, they are ancient, approximately one billion years old. It’s not surprising that humans have developed a long relationship with them.
Mushrooms have been used for medicine for centuries. Around 3300 BC, Otzi (the Iceman), who was found frozen in a glacier in the Alps at the Austria-Italy border, was carrying a mushroom in his sack, now known as birch polypore – used for wound healing and anti-parasitic uses. Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, identified the amadou mushroom as an anti-inflammatory and useful for cauterizing wounds to stop bleeding. In 1928, penicillin was developed by Alexander Fleming from the mold Penicillium, leading to other antibiotics produced by fungi and bacteria.
Today, we see Netflix giving credit to mushrooms as a miracle organism to cure bodies and minds while exploring its many wonders in a nature documentary Fantastic Fungi. Consumer interest is also reflected in the evolving global mushroom market valued at $50.3 billion in 2021 and expected to reach $115.8 billion in 2030.
The growing interest in fungi is no surprise. Mushrooms offer profound health benefits. They are cholesterol free, provide fiber, and are packed with vitamins and minerals such as riboflavin, niacin, and magnesium. They also contain vitamin D, selenium, glutathione, and ergothioneine – the four key nutrients that popularized mushrooms as a superfood. Ergothineione might not be a household term, but it’s an important amino acid found in mushrooms that could protect against cognitive decline.
Bioactive compounds in mushrooms, from proteins to peptides, could be the game changer in medicine. Research has shown that these compounds promise to promote heart health, enhance immune system responses, and prevent and treat cancer. Mushroom compounds have antiviral properties and could be used to treat diseases such as HIV, influenza A, and hepatitis C.
Recent studies on psilocybin mushrooms (also known as “magic mushrooms”) have shown a therapeutic potential to treat a variety of mental health disorders, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and end-of-life anxiety symptoms. Michael Pollan, co-founder of the University of California Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics with a best-selling book How to Change Your Mind, highlights a shift in public acceptance of psychedelics yet notes risks.
Though fungi are proving their health merits, there is also concern that pathogenic fungi – those that cause human disease- pose a health threat. Traditionally, fungal diseases have been considered mostly benign (think athlete’s foot), only causing major complications for immune-compromised patients. This mindset has contributed to inadequate attention and resources along with global inertia.
Fungi have recently been called the “silent crisis” in global health. Worldwide they cause approximately 150 million severe cases of fungal diseases and contribute to approximately 5 million deaths. In 2020, the World Health Organization released its first-ever list of priority fungal pathogens in response to growing disease incidence, fungal resistance to available medicines, poor disease reporting, and the lack of research into new treatments. There is currently no vaccine available for fungal diseases. To make matters worse, these diseases are expected to increase over the coming decades in response to globalization, human activity, natural disasters, and climate change.
Disease outbreaks also emerge from strained health care systems. Candida auris has grabbed recent media headlines due to its unprecedented spread through health care facilities already overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. According to the CDC, Candida auris has become an urgent threat due to its resistance to multiple antifungal drugs and high death rate – up to 60 percent of people who become infected die.
There is a clear need for greater public recognition, global response, and collaboration to address the human risk of emerging fungal diseases. WHO’s priority fungal pathogens list is an important call for public health awareness, improved surveillance, and investments in research and interventions.
Fungi have enormous potential for human health and well-being, but we also need to better understand and prepare for fungal threats. Now that fungi have gotten our attention, it’s time to act.
Sandra Vamos is an associate professor of public health. Deanna Lernihan is a public health professional and medical writer.