What’s in a mushroom? Or fungi in general? And what is it about mould that it can attract and repel in equal measure?

Revered and feared, fungi can be delicious when consumed, or beneficial to health when used for medicinal purposes (remember penicillin?).

Mushrooms are also enjoyed illegally as a hallucinogenic drug or best avoided when poisonous as they can simply kill you.

But there’s a lot more to fungi and mushrooms.

You may associate them with decay, but they also represent rebirth and regeneration. Some experts go so far as to describe fungi as something between vegetable and animal.

The latter may sound far-fetched, but mycelium – fungal colonies that can extend thousands of acres wide – share the same network design as the internet, functioning as a single organism to convey information and even warn about incoming danger.

There’s a new found fascination with this intriguing organism. Mycologists – experts in all things fungal – are now taking centre stage, explaining to an often ignorant world about their untapped potential, particularly in the field of medicine and for solving environmental problems.

One of those experts is Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and writer who is best known for his best-selling book, Entangled Life.

It was the winner of the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2021 and the Wainwright Prize 2021. It also featured as Radio 4’s Book of the Week and was selected as a Book of the Year in The Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, New Statesman and Time, among others.

Sheldrake’s interest in mushrooms began earlier than most.

He said: “When I was a child, through my growing up in general and when I was an undergraduate, I was studying plants and it turned out that fungi played vital roles in the lives of plants, but we talk about them too little.”

The role that fungi plays in the living world is so crucial and wide-ranging that Paul Stamets, a man Sheldrake admires and who has done a lot to popularise fungi to a widestream audience, believes they could change the world.

Peer-reviewed experiments have shown that a certain type of mushroom can absorb crude oil and become an oasis for life. Mycelium is also good at storing CO2, while a certain type of fungi can be used to destroy plagues of termites. And initial studies conducted on the edible Lion’s Mane mushroom, which tastes a bit like crabmeat, have shown that they could also help towards nerve regeneration.

Despite this, only 6 to 8 per cent of the world’s fungi has been identified.

Sheldrake shows typical British restraint when it comes to singing the virtues of fungi, admitting that he is loath to use Stamets’ particularly effusive language when describing the world of mushrooms. However, he is no less enthusiastic about the organism’s potential.

“Broadly speaking, it’s true that partnering with fungi has the power to transform human life,” he said.

“There’s lots of different subjects, all with nuances, but there are many ways that we can partner with fungi to solve the problems that we face, and it’s a really exciting field, because we know far less than we should.”

The history of humans is closely linked to the history of fungi, anyway. Aside from penicillin, there have been many other “fungal blockbuster roles” in medicine and beyond, he says.

“In agriculture, whenever we cultivate plants, we are cultivating relationships with fungi. We are totally entwined with fungal life.”

Regarding the recent surge of interest in the subject, he says he was surprised by the huge success of his book.

“I was delighted that people wanted to find out more about fungi, of course, but it was not what I expected. I’m very encouraged by the wave of interest in fungi that we’re seeing right now, both among scientific professionals and among the general public.”

Some would say it’s not before time. In 1970, US president Richard Nixon put the kibosh on medical research that showed the benefits of using magic mushrooms in treating mental health disorders, all thanks to a non-addictive compound found in dozens of fungi species – psilocybin.

Such is the potential that in March 2022, a group of scientists called for the removal of psilocybin from the Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which would bring the UK in line with parts of the US, Canada and some EU countries. This, they argued, would stimulate investment and innovation in research, trade and healthcare.

“Those regulations are starting to soften, but (research) is still far behind what it should be, given that they are a kingdom of life; a kingdom of life that has not received a kingdom’s worth of attention,” he adds enigmatically.

There are limits, though. A certain type of mushroom can indeed break down crude oil, highlighting the potential of fungi to combat pollution (is there no end to fungi’s superhero powers?), but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“There are lots of ways that fungi can break down pollutants, but too little research is taking place into the subject. And it’s not as simple as it seems – you can’t just go around releasing fungi into polluted environments.”

On a more pressing, industry-wide, issue, he is calling for the indiscriminate use of fungicides to be banned. “We create fungal superbugs when we use fungicides,” he says (no one mention The Last of Us, please).

Given the hunger for more knowledge, what advice would he give the public when venturing out, looking for mushrooms?

“Fungal life is unfolding all around us. There are lots of ways to get involved. You can grow mushrooms in your home; you can go out looking for them and learn to identify them; you can start composting or fermenting foods or drinks – brewing beer or wine – and start bringing them into your life in different ways.”

As an aside, out of all the thousands of exotic species he has studied, he has a soft spot for the ubiquitous porcini mushroom, as found in your humble risotto dish.

“I was out recently and saw some that were beautiful – they were just magnificent.”

Merlin Sheldrake will be giving a talk at the Dartington Trust on Wednesday, November 29, at 8pm.

Although in-person tickets for the event are sold out, livestream tickets are still available through this booking link: https://www.dartington.org/event/entangled-life-in-conversation-with-merlin-sheldrake/

Pre-orders for signed/personalised copies of Entangled Life can be either posted or kept for collection at the Dartington Trust Bookshop, Totnes.