Did you know that mushroom spores are a real problem for space travel – space mushrooms and more….

It’s true. In 1997, an astronaut on the Russian space station Mir discovered what he described as “beach-ball size” globs growing behind a service panel. Unexpectedly, fungi had begun to grow—and it wasn’t a one-off incident either.

Fungus was once found on a Soyuz vessel, the crafts used to take people and equipment to and from the Mir. It was discovered along a quartz glass viewport, where it was merrily eating away at the rubber seals. The fungus had apparently done enough damage to cause the window to crack. As one can imagine, this is less than ideal in space.

Are mushrooms from space – no one knows for sure but certainly you can get to know John W. Allen, aka Mushroom John, The Legendary Explorer, and Ethnomycologist for some very interesting perspective on mushroom spores and mushrooms and on the topic of mycology and fungi.

Fungi, whether they’re on the Mir or deep within the Chitwan province of Nepal, are what can be called extremophiles, meaning that they can live in a variety of harsh environments.

Fungi are extremophiles that can survive harsh conditions and environments like deserts, caves or nuclear accident sites, and they are known to be difficult to eradicate from other environments including indoor and closed spaces.

Dr.Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech. View statement.

Those “harsh conditions” include the dark vacuum of space too, it would seem:

The Mir space station.
The Russian Mir space station. Incredibly, mushroom spores can survive here.

Evidence Suggests Mushroom Spores Can Survive in Space

While the problems on the Mir were taking place inside the space station, spores can survive outside human space craft too. Experiments like the ones on space mushrooms conducted in 1985 by researchers at the Laboratory of Astrophysics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, Peter Weber and J. M. Greenberg, have shown that not only can spores survive in space – they can likely survive interstellar travel too (e.g., on or inside an asteroid).

But what about that whole space radiation thing that seems to trip up so many living organisms? Because, you know, it’s radiation?

Apparently, mushroom spores in space can withstand it quite a lot better than our fragile human bodies. Shielding helps them survive (as little as 0.4 mm of aluminum, as discovered in one experiment), but they’re ultimately quite well suited for space travel.

In general, microorganisms tend to thrive in the space flight environment in terms of enhanced growth parameters and a demonstrated ability to proliferate in the presence of normally inhibitory levels of antibiotics. The mechanisms responsible for the observed biological responses, however, are not yet fully understood.

From the study Space Microbiology, which explored the capability of mushroom spores and other organisms to survive in space.

One has to wonder then… have “alien” spores ever landed on earth? It’s certainly possible, and lends credence to the theory of panspermia.

Panspermia is a theory that asks the following question: what if microscopic lifeforms, such as mushroom spores, bacteria, or other microbes, could be transported through space—like on an asteroid—and then crash-landed onto another planet?

While the theory is unproven, and likely will remain so for quite some time to come, it definitely seems plausible given what we know about the ability of spores to withstand space. It’s a wonderfully entertaining idea too, because it means that at some point in our evolutionary history, we might have been the aliens (at least in some form).

Pop Culture Has Caught On to The Idea of Mushroom Spores in Space

A scene from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Special Delivery.
The character Tom from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Special Delivery.

The concept of “space mushrooms” isn’t a new idea in pop culture. It’s such an interesting premise that we, as people, just can’t help but exploring it.

One of the earliest examples on television was a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, written by the amazing author Ray Bradbury (who you might remember as the author of Fahrenheit 451).

The Hitchcock episode, titled Special Delivery, tells a story about the rising popularity of mail-order mushroom spores, which boys throughout the United States are buying to grow in their cellars.

Of course, not all is as it seems—the spores are from outer space and they have an agenda. Ultimately, the alien spores grow into mushrooms which possess any human who eats them. It’s a great episode that’s worth seeking out.

Paul Stamets and actor Anthony Rapp.
The real Paul Stamets on the left, with actor Anthony Rapp who portrays astromycologist Lieutenant Paul Stamets on Star Trek: Discovery. Via Twitter.

More recently, the idea of interstellar mushrooms has been explored by the television series Star Trek: Discovery, which actually features a character named after real-life mycologist Paul Stamets, who we’ve mentioned a number of times before here on the blog.

(Mild spoiler warning for any Trekkies in the audience!)

In the show, Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets is an “astromycologist” who believes that fungal spores are the building blocks of energy across the universe—quite literally, as the show reveals that a vast mycelial network is ultimately responsible for holding the Star Trek universe together. Eventually, the Lieutenant figures out a way to use a “spore drive” (sort of like a “warp drive” but for mushrooms) to travel along the mycelial web. Whoa.

All of these pop culture concepts—as unrealistic as they might be—are a joy to think about. But considering that fungi have been around a lot longer than humans and they can survive in space, maybe they’re not so wacky after all.