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Mushroom Mycelium: What It Is & How It Can Be Useful to Humans

Mushroom Mycelium: What It Is & How It Can Be Useful to Humans cover
Written by Real Mushrooms - Updated: June 14, 2024

Contrary to what a majority of the population believes, these fungal organisms that we call mushrooms are made up of three different parts. The one we all know and eat is called the mushroom (fruiting body), and it comes in all shapes and sizes. Under the mushroom (fruiting body or cap) you'll find spores (the seed) of the mushroom, which facilitate reproduction.

Then, there's the mycelium—the root system or vegetative body of a mushroom. It is a dense mass of thread-like tissue filaments called hyphae. These web-like structures spread into the substrate the fungus is growing on. This could be wood, soil, compost, coffee, sugar cane, or grains like rice and oats.

The purpose of the mycelium is to find and break down food sources in the substrate and collect nutrients and water for the final creation of the mushroom.

When the mycelium has gathered enough energy and the environmental conditions are optimal, it will begin producing mushrooms. However, even under the right conditions, some species of mycelia don't produce mushrooms (the fruiting body).

As this article will outline, mycelium has other useful properties that can enable humans to use it for a number of environmentally-friendly purposes.

In this article:

  1. What Is Mycelium?
  2. The Function of Mycelium in the Mushroom Life Cycle
  3. The Ecological Benefits & Uses of Mycelium
  4. Mycelium vs. Mushroom (Fruiting Body) For Production of Supplements

What Is Mushroom Mycelium?

The mycelium is a part of a mushroom that is very similar to the root system of any plant.

It is a rich network of thin filaments called hyphae that collect food, water, and nutrients to nourish the fungus. It also provides the mushroom with support and anchorage.

The mycelial network remains unseen, as most of it is intertwined with the substrate it's growing on to form an inseparable mass.

Mycelium filaments overtake dead organic matter like wood and extract nutrients from it. If conditions are right, the mycelium will produce a mushroom. However, some species of mycelia don't produce mushrooms at all.

Many supplement manufacturers grow mycelium on a grain substrate to produce "mushroom supplements." Using myceliated grain to produce "mushroom supplements" is misleading as the resulting supplements have no mushrooms. Therefore, supplements made from mycelium grown on grain have low potency, contain undesirable starch filler, and are lower in essential active compounds like beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are the primary active compound found in mushrooms and mycelium.

The mushroom (fruiting body) is most ideal for manufacturing mushroom supplements because it:

  • It contains vital nutrients, including proteins, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • It contains consistently high levels of beta-glucans—immunity boosters.
  • The mushroom has no starch content as the growing substrate is not harvested with it.

The Function of Mycelium in the Mushroom Life Cycle

Mushroom Life Cycle
Mycelium is the web-like vegetative body of fungi that can become a mushroom when conditions are right. Mycelium decomposes organic matter and absorbs nutrients that will fuel the production of the mushroom. A happy by-product of this process is the release of nutrients that will also feed other surrounding plant matter and trees.

Mushrooms, like any other fungi, are essential to the ecosystem as they help to recycle nutrients and avail them to other organisms in the environment.

The mycelium helps to close the energy cycle of the ecosystem by decomposing organic matter and recycling it into beneficial compounds for the soil food web.

Enzymes secreted by the mycelium facilitate this cycle. The enzymes break down the substrate and the surrounding dead organic matter.

The hyphae facilitate the movement of the nutrients to the mushroom and recycle the dead plant matter into beneficial compounds that are again absorbed by the soil.

The mycelium also intertwines with other plant and tree roots to form a symbiotic ecosystem.

The mycelial network extends farther to connect vast root systems of trees and plants than a plant’s roots could. It delivers nutrients such as phosphorus, which plants, especially in a scarce nutrient environment, can’t reach on their own.

It also facilitates the exchange of sugars and carbohydrates from the plants to the fungus.

Simply put, mycelium allows the exchange of nutrients all over the forest, which helps to improve the health of the entire ecosystem.

The Ecological Benefits & Uses of Mycelium

Below are some of the ways that humans can use mycelium as a sustainable tool for sustainable material production and for reducing pollution.

  1. Mycoremediation: Decomposing Pollution with Mycelium
  2. Using Mycelium as a Plant-based Meat Alternative
  3. Using Mycelium as an Alternative Building Material and Fabric

Mycoremediation: Decomposing Pollution with Mycelium

Certain kinds of mycelium can decompose otherwise non-degradable materials such as hydrocarbons, plastics, unrefined oil, or even nuclear waste. This power can be leveraged for environmental cleanup efforts—a process called mycoremediation.

Mycoremediation is the use of fungi to remove waste from the environment.

It involves maximizing the production of fungi to reduce waste generation. It can be used to encourage treatment and conversion of waste into a useful form.

The process of mycoremediation relies on enzymes produced by mycelium to degrade substrate (in this case, waste and pollutants) and generate products fit for consumption.

How? Unlike other living organisms, mycelium breaks down food sources before ingesting the nutrients. This process allows the fungi to eliminate any nonbiodegradables like hydrocarbons, plastics, unrefined oil, or even nuclear waste.

As such, mycoremediation can help to decontaminate our environment in the following ways:

  • Breaks down and degrades contaminants, like E.Coli and toxic wildfire ash, from water sources.
  • Absorbs heavy metals and other petroleum wastes from the soil and converts them into less toxic compounds.
  • Assists with faster reforestation efforts by reducing the competition of invasive plant species.

Mycelium is highly absorbent, and it has the potential to break down and absorb even the most toxic human-created waste.

It ingests nutrients from the substrate, decomposes, and redistributes them as bioactive compounds to other plants in the ecosystem.

Read more about the vast potential of mycoremediation in our article, Mycoremediation: 8 Ways Mushrooms Can Mitigate Pollution.

Using Mycelium as a Plant-based Meat Alternative

Vegan and vegetarian eating is an effective way of reducing the environmental carbon footprint by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Mycelium is a delicious substitute for meat that can be found in ground form or grown and shaped into different meat-like textures.

Mycelium-based meat takes on the fibrous and tender consistency of animal-based meat but has a slightly different taste and significantly more benefits.

Mycelium meat is nutritious as it is a complete protein because it contains all the essential amino acids. It also includes a sufficient supply of fiber, B vitamins, iron, zinc, and low cholesterol content.

Furthermore, growing fungi-based meat requires up to 99% less energy, land, and water compared to what’s used to rear cattle.

Video: How Mycelium Meat is Produced

Mycelium is at the forefront of a “third wave” of vegan meat alternatives. It can be used to produce a delicious, realistic steak product in 18 hours, versus 7 years for a beef steak.

Using Mycelium as an Alternative Building Material and Fabric

Since mycelium feeds on waste, it can be used to detoxify waste and transform it into usable, eco-friendly, and sustainable materials. But its potential for positive environmental impact doesn’t end there.

Mycelium can be used to manufacture a variety of durable, biodegradable materials, such as:

  • Leather: Mycelium leather can be tanned and dyed to mimic the look, feel, and texture of leather and other synthetic fabrics. Adidas is currently at the forefront of this revolution, having recently released their first Mylo leather shoe—the Stan Smith Mylo.
  • Packaging: Mycelium foam makes a great alternative to conventional polystyrene or polyurethane packaging foam. It's lightweight, breathable, flame resistant, and inexpensive. Ikea is one of the retailers leveraging this environmentally-friendly packaging solution.
  • Building materials: Mycelium can be used to make lightweight, inexpensive, and durable building materials, ranging from building blocks, styrofoam, wall tiles, and particle boards. The materials are biodegradable, strong, fire-resistant, and offer insulation power. It can also be used to create a bonding agent for building materials.

Mycelium Materials Photo Gallery

The following images show some of the consumer objects that are being manufactured from mushroom mycelium.

Mycelium “leather” is already being used by clothing brands such as Adidas, Stella McCartney, and Hermès, as a sustainable, beautiful, biodegradable, and ethical leather alternative.
Mycelium can be used in forming bricks and other building materials. The resulting material is non-toxic, sustainable, super strong, water, mould, and fire resistant and is more heat-insulating than fiberglass insulation. Photo credit: @mangtronix (cc flickr)
Mycelium can be grown into specific forms, thus reducing processing steps. It can be used as an environmentally-friendly packaging material such as this wine bottle shipping container. Photo Credit: Mycobond (cc)
A coffin made from mycelium can reduce the resource burden of fabrication and the pollution caused by object disposal. This coffin decomposes in 45 days and becomes one with nature again. Photo credit: Loop

Using mycelium as an alternative material is great for the environment in the following ways:

  • It consumes less energy.
  • It produces fewer emissions.
  • It does not require the many chemicals used in producing plastic-based materials.
  • It is easy, quick, and sustainable to produce.
  • It is a durable material that can outlast other commercial options.

Mycelium vs. Mushroom (Fruiting Body) For Production of Supplements

While regulated by the FDA, the dietary supplement industry still allows for confusing marketing and labeling, which has created uncertainty about the best part of a mushroom to use for supplements.

Is it the mushroom (fruiting body) or the mycelium?

The mushroom (fruiting body) is the best part to use for supplements because it contains a vast abundance of active compounds that support a variety of the body’s functions.

In more technical terms, the mushroom (fruiting body) can contain up to 10 times as much as many beta-glucans—polysaccharides that support your health and your immune response—as the mycelium when it is grown on a grain substrate.

However, because mycelium is inexpensive to grow, manufacturers often use this instead by growing it on grains like rice and oats. The resulting mycelium is inseparable from grain, therefore both end up in the final supplement product. Even worse, certain brands mislead customers into buying products made using the myceliated grain by using the term "mushroom" on the product label when the product itself contains no mushrooms.

Mycelium grown on grain is commonplace in supplements produced in North America because it is inexpensive to produce. It is inaccurate to call these “mushroom” supplements because the product does not contain mushrooms or the concentrations of medicinal compounds unique to them.

TABLE: Mushrooms vs Mycelium in Supplements

The table below presents the differences between supplements made from mushrooms (fruiting body) and the mycelium or myceliated grain.

At Real Mushrooms, we understand the significance of these differences. Therefore, we strive to create high-quality supplements with only the mushroom and no mycelium or residual substrate.

This helps us deliver high-potency mushroom supplements that contain all the health benefits of real health-promoting mushrooms.

Our customers love our supplements and believe we provide them with value for their money. Here’s what they’ve got to say:

“The quality of these supplements seems to be far superior to most others on the market.” - Allie

“Impressed by the quality and transparency of this company, even explaining why the products are sourced from China and the process of how the mushrooms are harvested.” - Stacey D Avraham

“I really appreciate the fact that Real Mushrooms is so detail oriented on their web site and products enough to focus on concentrating the beta-glucans, and verifying for active compounds.” - George

Learn more about mushroom mycelium in our other articles

  1. Mycoremediation: 8 Ways Mushrooms Can Mitigate Pollution
  2. Mushroom Anatomy: A Deep Dive Into the Parts of a Mushroom
  3. Medicinal Mushroom Benefits: Mycelium vs Fruiting Body
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Real Mushrooms is the premier provider of organic mushroom extracts, verified for the beneficial medicinal compounds like beta-glucans and free from starchy fillers like grains. With over 40 years of mushroom growing experience, Real Mushrooms prides itself on providing a transparent source of functional mushrooms that you can trust. All the information provided on our blog has been reviewed by our science and medical team.

Disclaimer: The information or products mentioned in this article are provided as information resources only, and are not to be used or relied on to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information does not create any patient-doctor relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. The information is intended for health care professionals only. The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is intended for educational purposes. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by licensed medical physicians. Please consult your doctor or health practitioner for any medical advice.