From Foraging to Farming to Fuel
The Many Functions of Fungi
This past spring, local news outlets like WCCO and the Star Tribune featured morel mushroom hunts as one of Minnesota’s new favorite pastimes. These odd-looking fungi are expensive and delectable when sautéed; the arduous task of seeking them out in dense woods invites curiosity about the secret lives of mushrooms themselves.
It turns out that the morel mushroom—as well as many other benign, nondescript fungi so often underfoot—are actually very dynamic organisms with the capacity to change not just our weekend forays into the forest, but also how we convert plants into fuel or how small-scale farmers in developing countries earn a living.
Graduate student Gerald Presley cultivates his love of mushrooms and explores their potential as he pursues his doctorate in Bioproducts & Biosystems Science, Engineering and Management (BBSEM) at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on the metabolism of wood-decay fungi and its unique biochemical repertoire.
“I sort of combined an interest in fungi with an interest in biochemistry and there you go: fungal metabolism,” says Presley.
Not just for eating: Mushrooms could be the key to efficient biofuel production
As the need and demand for renewable fuel sources increases, researchers are looking for more ways that we can convert fibrous plant biomass—such as corn stalks or switchgrass—to fuels we can use in lieu of gasoline. They have yet to figure out a way to break down the biomass efficiently, so instead they’re turning to the expertise of certain microbes and fungi for help. These species—including the wood-digesting fungi that are the subject of Presley’s doctoral thesis—decompose the complex molecules that provide sturdiness to plants as they grow.
These small but mighty organisms can contain special enzymes that scientists hope to identify and use as a tool towards processing plant biomass for a variety of industrial uses. “Fungi are able to deconstruct [complex plant biomass] into its constituent sugars and utilize them as a source of energy,” explains Presley.
His passion for these fungi is evident: “It never ceases to amaze me when I come across a huge, heavily rotted log,” says Presely. “I think of the tree in its original state, this huge, unshakeable, almost eternal organism standing tall in the forest. To think that something can have the capacity to break such a mighty organism into powder and soil is unbelievable.”
Changing economies, changing perspectives
In addition to researching wood-digesting fungi, Presley’s graduate school experience has included teaching people how to cultivate shiitake mushrooms on dead logs, hosting public mushroom hunts, and now, a stint in proteomics research and community development in South Africa. His international experience—funded by a GROW Award and a USAID research and innovation fellowship—involves developing means for low-cost mushroom cultivation for South African farmers.
Growing and selling high-value mushrooms like shiitake and oyster varieties can be a lucrative business for low-income farmers in South Africa as demand for these mushrooms continues to increase. Presley explains: “Edible mushrooms can be cultivated using low tech techniques by poor small-scale farmers in the developing world. In this way fungi can have a real impact on the lives of small scale producers by increasing their income and helping to ensure food security among poor food producers.” Mushroom cultivation also has the potential to create more jobs for South African workers who have been hit hard by economic downturn.
Presley and his colleagues are working to increase accessibility to mushroom spawn—the fungal “seed”—for these farmers by developing a self-sustaining spawn facility at the Agricultural Research Council site in Stellenbosch (a city just east of Capetown). If successful, the facility would be a reliable source of seed that does not require further government funding for spawn production and distribution.
Presley hopes to make a big impact on local farmers, but sees this as a growing experience for him as well. “I’m being exposed to quite a bit in Capetown, South Africa. I am learning a lot about culture and how others live their lives and what matters to these people and what their needs are.”
Presley says the experience of being supplanted into the local culture and perspectives of a foreign community can be a powerful tool for molding effective global leaders. Those graduating with doctoral degrees from the world’s leading countries, Presley says, “have the power to work towards solving global socioeconomic problems; unless one understands what those problems are they can’t be addressed. This is why international experiences in education are very important to making a difference in the global community.”
Fungi on the home front
Interested in learning about mushrooms right here at home? Before leaving on his international adventure, Presley co-founded a very successful Mycology Club here on campus.
“We noticed that there were a heck of a lot of graduate students studying fungi as part of their degrees," says Presley, "and that there were a number of people in general on the campus and in the community that were interested in fungi but there is no mycology degree program or other overarching fungal institute at the U that would bring these people together.”
The club has steadily added activities and resources since its inception and now offers forays, cultivation workshops, guest speaker forums, and even sells home-grown mushrooms outside of the meat and dairy salesroom every Wednesday during the summer.
“We run into a lot of non-students and they love chatting about edible mushrooms and love eating them of course,” Presley says. “The mushroom forays that we host are open to the public and we get quite a diverse crowd of people showing up to these forays. This is a great opportunity for some of our more seasoned profs and post-docs to teach people a thing or two about mushroom identification.”
Learning beyond the lab
Presley is grateful for his somewhat unusual graduate student experience. “Having a more diversified education outside of the standard scientific curriculum makes more creative individuals. I think of this a lot in terms of where I will end up in my career.”
Presley cites his experience putting together the Mycology Club and finding new avenues for community engagement both on campus and on a different continent as major factors to helping him build a creative sensibility for problem solving in diverse contexts.
“A creative learning experience is essential,” says Presley, “for making highly educated post grads adaptable to a changing work landscape and able to survive in a changing economy.”
Beneath it all remains an insatiable curiosity for fungal biology. So what does fungi-farmer, traveler, and student Presley consider his favorite of all mushrooms? “This is a difficult question and it would likely change depending on when you asked me. I love eating so I would have to say shiitake. They are fun to grow, medicinal, productive, and they are absolutely delicious.”