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News and Media

Winter Term 2011: Composting with Edible Mushrooms

Feb. 03, 2011

Eva Sachs '14

Photo by Ma'ayan Plaut '10

Darrin Schultz’s lab is filled with clear garbage bags of shredded paper and paper towels. Shelves are lined with used paper coffee cups, pizza boxes, and jars filled with fat popcorn kernels, some of which are covered in white fungi – mycelia, which, in the right conditions, will grow into mushrooms. Schultz ’13, a biology major, hopes to create a system of using edible mushrooms to compost waste, particularly paper. The mycelia in his jars, vials, and Petri dishes will eventually grow into blue oyster, shiitake, shaggy mane, and other mushrooms.

“My ultimate goal for this project is to develop easy methods for those who aren’t mycologists (people who study fungi) to collect waste and grow edible mushrooms, while producing excellent compost at the same time,” he says. “What I would like to do immediately is make it so that co-ops can grow them for food.”

He has also spoken with the owners of Slow Train Café about using their waste coffee grounds. Since mushrooms and mycelia break down the core components of a material, turning them into nutrients that the fungi need, foods such as coffee grounds won’t transfer undesirable ingredients like caffeine into the mushrooms, according to Schultz.

He pulls a small vial out of a refrigerator sitting on a counter. Delicate white strands jut out from a stick inside the container, jostling slightly when disturbed by the pale, peach-colored liquid that partially fills the vial. This is a culture of white oyster mushrooms, Schultz explains. Such samples are later transferred to Petri dishes filled with agar (a gelatin made from seaweed), and then to the grain jars. “The clumps of popcorn actually are colonized by the mushroom mycelium, so it is from these colonized grains that the mycelium grows,” he says. “It really is as simple as moistening the paper [from the bags] and adding the colonized grains.”

The project, if successful on a large scale, may eventually make available a broader range of edible mushrooms than is usually seen in the American diet. “That’s another thing I care about – increasing diversity in what we eat,” says Schultz.

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