Ethnomycology Ethnomycology

Ethnomycology is the study of human-fungal interactions. Fungi have left an indelible mark on our culture (just think 'brewing' and the social function of alcohol): from their ancient use in shamanic and religious ritual, our consumption of them as food, their importance in medicine and drug development, to their recent application in biotechnology and as biocontrol agents. This section of the website aims to supplement the biological content with an appreciation of fungi, and the myriad of ways in which they have shaped our lives.

From Percy Shelley's ‘The sensitive plant' (Shelley, 1956)

"And agarics, and fungi, with mildew and mould
Started like mist from the wet ground cold;
Pale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead
With a spirit of growth had been animated!"

The most obvious human interaction with fungi is our consumption of them as food. Indeed, people have consumed fungi for thousands of years: archaeological evidence has revealed edible species associated with people living in Chile ~13,000 years ago; the ancient Greeks and the Romans were known to have collected mushrooms – hence Caesar's mushroom Amanita caesarea - however the mass consumption of fungi is thought to have appeared in China ~300 BC (More information from the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations).

Today, the consumption of fungi is a billion pound industry: the cultivated mushroom Agaricus bisporus is ubiquitous throughout food-stalls and supermarkets across much of the world, whilst others are considered delicacies depending on culture and geography, as evidenced in the fungus festivals that take place during the fruiting season of Termitomyces spp in Thailand, and white truffles (Tuber magnatum) that fetch up to £22,000/ kg in the west (Watling, 2003).
Humans have had an intimate relationship with fungi for thousands of years: this association is well depicted in the persistent presence of ‘fairy rings' or mushrooms in Celtic folktales, and their association with pagan witchcraft in Germany (Dugan, 2008). Fungi also make other conspicuous appearances in western literature in the works of Shakespeare, Shelley, Clare and Conan Doyle which further consolidates their place in the human imagination and our wider cultural history (Dugan, 2008). Furthermore, the oldest known mummy, Oetzi the ‘ice man' frozen in ice for 5,300 years until 1991, was shown to be carrying a modest medical kit containing the birch polypore Piptoporus betulinus, which has antibiotic and carminative properties that will have calmed his intestinal parasite (whipworms); he was also carrying samples of the tinder fungus Fomes fomentarius, which was an essential component of any alpine trekker's fire starting kit. The diversity of human-fungal interactions is astounding, and illustrates just how deeply they have permeated almost every aspect of our lives.

Norway in the 17th century persecuted 137 people, two-thirds of whom were executed, for practicing witchcraft that was learnt, curiously, from ‘consumption' of certain drinks (milk, beer, ale) and flour based food (Alm, 2003). Indeed, when put under pressure, several ‘witches' on separate occasions confessed to learning their craft ‘from bread' or drink that contained ‘black grains' and caused headaches, muscular contractions and ‘disturbed senses' in which 'Satan' would appear embodied in the form of a black dog or cat (Alm, 2003). It is thought that ergotism induced by the sclerotia (the ‘black grain') of Claviceps purpurea made a significant contribution to the symptoms for which those people where put on trial (Alm, 2003). The sclerotia contain different alkaloids such as ergotamine, ergosine and ergocristine among others that are known to be either poisonous, or highly psychoactive; indeed, the principle building block of ergot alkaloids is lysergic acid, from which Albert Hofmann synthesised D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938 (Alm, 2003). It is not surprising, then, that evidence of ergotism has been associated with ‘magical brews' consumed by the Aztecs, and in resurges of Jewish mystical movements throughout Europe in the middle ages (Alm, 2003). In the middle ages, epidemics of ergotism claimed tens of thousands of lives; today, however, ergot alkaloid derivatives have made a valuable contribution to our modern pharmacopeia (Hofman, 1978). Ergotoxine, the first pharmacologically useful alkaloid was isolated in 1906, followed by the isolation of ergotamine, the first chemically pure ergot alkaloid that was utilized in medicine and obstetrics (Hofman, 1978). The subsequent elucidation of their structures enabled their synthesis and preparation in therapeutic drugs such as methergine used in obstetrics, hydergine used to treat dementia and aid recovery from stroke, and in bromocryptine whose dopamine-like activity is used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease (Hofman, 1978 & Tudzynski, 2001). Ergot became such a pharmacologically useful substance that the naturally occurring ergot growing in rye fields no longer provided sufficient quantities to meet the demand of ergot-derived pharmaceutical production; because of this the production of ergot on artificially inoculated rye, and in submerged cultures, was set up on an industrial scale (Hofman 1978).
The discovery of penicillin, attributed to Alexander Fleming and purified by Florey and Chain, revolutionised the treatment of pathogenic disease (Website: The penicillins are a class of antibiotics produced by species of Penicillium, and are characterised by a β-lactam ring fused to a thiazolidine ring which disrupts peptidoglycan cross-linking in bacterial cell walls, causing cell lysis (Sainsbury & Singleton, 2006). The original penicillins, however, are ineffective against gram negative bacteria, and gram positive bacteria that produce β-lactamases. Despite these shortcomings, penicillin is still considered a ‘wonder drug' that increased average life expectancy by a decade (Sainsbury & Singleton, 2006). Another class of antibiotics, the cephalosporins produced by species of Cephalosporium, also contain a β-lactam ring and therefore have very similar bactericidal qualities, and limitations, to penicillin. Gliotoxins are another group of antibiotics produced by Aspergillus fumigatus that are of current interest for their interaction with macrophages (Website: Many antifungal agents are also derived from fungi, such as griseofulvin produced by Penicillium griseofulvin which works by interfering with microtubule formation, thereby inhibiting mitosis; griseofulvin is used to treat ringworm, among other pathogenic dermatophytes and is also the focus of some cancer research due to its disruption of cell division in tumours (Website:
Fungi also produce useful immune suppressants, such as Cyclosporin A produced by diverse organisms such as Cryptococcus neoformansTrichoderma polysporum and Cylindrocarpon lucidum. Cyclosporin inhibits T cell proliferation by forming a complex with cyclophilin which deactivates a transcription factor by interaction with calcineurin, which thereby suppresses host response to foreign bodies, hence it is used to prevent organ rejection during transplant surgery (Website: Cyclosporins produced by Tolypocladium inflatum is of current interest in biotechnology: they are usually produced by submerged fermentation, but new biotechnologies, however, are enabling them to be produced via solid state fermentation using cheaper materials such as rice husk and wheat grit in order to economize and improve the yield of these valuable secondary metabolites (Hamlyn,1997 & Nisha, 2008).
Fungi are also of biotechnological interest in the production of ‘active' wound management: fungal filaments promote cell-binding and cell-attractant relevant to the wound healing process, such activity is attributed to the chitin/ chitisan present in the filaments which could, potentially in the future, promote fibroblast growth into wound cavities and thereby provide a matrix for their anchorage leading to the deposition of new collagen and tissue granulation (Hamlyn, 1994). Such improvements in wound healing could alleviate the healing time required by traditional means, and therefore economize on valuable hospital/ nursing resources (Hamlyn, 1994).

It is clear that humans have an ancient and intimate relationship with fungi. The examples provided here illustrate the pathogenic, creative and exploitative nature of human-fungal interactions.

Armanita muscaria

The role of A. muscaria as an entheogen in various world religions and shamanic practice is a contentious topic to ethnomycologists.





Fungi in literature

Illustration by John Tenniel accompanying an edition of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' by Lewis Carrol, showing Alice with a caterpillar on top of a 'magic mushroom' smoking a hookah.







Sclerotia produced by Claviceps pupurea

Ergot alkaloids have played an important part in European fertility trends, in witch trials and in our modern pharmacopeia. Left image courtesy of Mr Ken Redshaw © University of Leeds via BioScience ImageBank. Right image courtesy of Dr Neil Smith © University of Reading via BioScience ImageBank.






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Dugan F. M. (2008). Fungi, folkways and fairytales. North American Fungi 3 (7): 23-72.

Hamilyn PF. & Schmidt RJ. (1994). Potential Therapeutic Application of Fungal Filaments in Wound Management. Mycologist Vol 8, part 4.

Hamlyn PF. (1997). Fungal Biotechnology. British Mycological Society Newsletter, accessed 18/2/09.

Hofman A. (1978). Historical View on Ergot Alkaloids. Pharmacology 16: 1-11.

Nisha AK. & Ramasamy K. (2008). Cyclosporin Production in Various Solid Substrate Media by Tolypocladium inflatum (ATCC 34921). Biotechnology 7 (2): 357-359.

Sainsbury, D. & Singleton, P. (2006). Dictionary of Microbiology and Molecular Biology 3rd Edition, Published by John Wiley & Sons, Sussex.

Shelley P. (1956). Selected Poems. Penguin, London.

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Website ‘Drugs from Fungi' accessed 18/2/09.

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Website ‘Wild Edible Fungi' accessed 18/2/09.