Under the feet of Jim Anderson lies a monster. He has been alive since the Persian king Xerxes fought the war against the ancient Greeks and weighs more than three blue whales together. It has a voracious appetite, which makes its way through huge bands of forest. But this is not a long-forgotten beast born of Greek mythology. It's a mushroom.
Anderson is located in an unpretentious wooded area in Crystal Falls, Michigan's upper peninsula. He is revisiting an organism that lives under the forest floor that he and his colleagues discovered almost 30 years ago. This is the home of Armillaria gallica a type of honey mushroom.
You might also like:
• The truth about nitrates in your food
• Wet countries that are dry
• How mealtimes affect the waist
These common mushrooms are found in temperate forests throughout Asia, North America and Europe, where they grow on dead or dying wood, helping to accelerate decomposition. Often the only visible sign above them are groups of scaly yellow-brown fruiting bodies, similar to feces that grow up to 1
When Anderson and his colleagues visited Crystal Falls in the late 80s, they discovered that what at first seemed to be a rich community of Armillaria gallica that flourished under litter mulch and upper ground soil of the forest was – indeed – a single giant specimen. They estimated that it covered an area of around 91 acres, weighed 100 tons and was at least 1,500 years old. He set a new record at the moment for the largest organism on the planet – a similar mushroom in an Oregon forest now holds the record.
"It caused quite a stir at the time," says Anderson. "Our newspaper came out on April 1st, so everyone thought it was a joke. Then in 2015 we thought we had to go back and test our prediction that this was really a single persistent organism."
The new results revealed that it was four times larger, 1,000 years older and if assembled it would weigh about 400 tons  They ended up returning to the site several times between 2015 and 2017, taking samples from distant points around the forest and then performing the DNA obtained through a sequencer in their lab at the University of Toronto. Since their initial study in the 80's, the genetic analysis has made great strides, with new techniques that make the process much cheaper, faster and providing more information.
Their new samples revealed that not only was Armillaria gallica they had discovered a single individual, but it was much larger and older than they had anticipated. The new results revealed that it was four times larger, 1,000 years older and if assembled it would weigh around 400 tons.
But the analysis has produced an even more surprising intuition, one that could help us humans in our fight against one of the modern medicines the greatest enemies – cancer.
Canadian researchers discovered what the secret behind Armillaria gallica & # 39; sextraordinary size and age could be. It appears that the fungus has an extremely low mutation rate – which means that it avoids potentially harmful alterations to its genetic code.
As organisms grow, their cells divide into two to produce new daughter cells. Over time, the DNA in the cells can be damaged causing errors, known as mutations, which creep into the genetic code. This is thought to be one of the key mechanisms that cause aging.
But it seems that Armillaria gallica in Crystal Falls may have some intrinsic resistance to this DNA damage. In 15 samples taken from distant parts of the forest and sequenced by the team, only 163 of the 100 million letters in the genetic code of Armillaria gallica had changed.
The fungus has a mechanism that helps protect its DNA from damage, giving it one of the most stable genomes in the natural world
"The frequency of mutations is much, much lower than we could have ever imagined," he says Anderson. "To have this low level of mutation, we would expect the cells to divide on average once per growth meter. But what is surprising is that the cells are microscopic – only a few micrometres in size – so you would need millions in every meter of growth. "
Anderson and his team believe that the fungus has a mechanism that helps protect its DNA from harm, giving it one of the most stable genomes in the natural world. While they still have to reveal exactly what it is, the remarkable stability of the genome of Armillaria gallica could offer new insights into human health.
In some cancers, mutations can cause tumors in cells like the normal
" Armillaria gallica could provide a potential counterpoint to the infamous cancer instability," says Anderson. "If you looked at a cancer cell line that was equivalent in age, it would be so full of mutations that you probably wouldn't be able to recognize it. Armillaria is the extreme opposite. It may be possible to identify evolutionary changes that allowed it to be like this and compare them with cancer cells. "
Doing this may not only allow scientists to learn more about what goes wrong in cancer cells but could also provide a potential new way of treating cancer.
While Anderson and his colleagues are not planning this work on their own – they are leaving it to others who are younger and more qualified to understand the genetic complexities of cancer – their results provide an intriguing look at the unused power of mushrooms for help humanity.
The combined biomass of mushrooms exceeds that of all the animals of the planet put together
Fungi are some of the most common organisms on our planet – the combined biomass of these often tiny organisms exceeds that of all the animals on the planet put together. And we're always discovering new mushrooms. More than 90% of the estimated 3.8 million mushrooms in the world are currently unknown to science. In 2017 alone, there were 2,189 new species of fungi described by the scientists.
A recent report published by the Royal Botanic Gardens of the United Kingdom Kew in London has shown that mushrooms are already used in hundreds of different ways, from paper to cleaning our dirty clothes. About 15% of all vaccines and biologically produced drugs come from fungi. The complex proteins used to trigger an immune response to hepatitis B virus, for example, are grown in yeast cells, which are part of the mushroom family.
Perhaps the best known is antibiotic penicillin, which was discovered in a common type of domestic mold that often grows on old bread. Dozens of other types of antibiotics are now made from mushrooms.
They are also sources of treatments for migraines and statins for the treatment of heart diseases. A relatively new immunosuppressant, used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, was developed from a compound produced by a fungus that infects cicada larvae.
"It is part of this family of fungi that enter insects and take them," says Tom Prescott, a researcher who evaluates the use of plants and fungi at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. "They produce these compounds to suppress the immune system of insects and it turns out that they can also be used in humans."
But some researchers believe they have barely scratched the surface of what mushrooms can offer us.
Compounds produced by fungi can destroy viruses that cause diseases such as influenza, polio, mumps, measles and glandular fever
"There have already been [fungi] reported activity against viral diseases," says Riikka Linnakoski, pathologist forestry at the Institute of Natural Resources Finland. The compounds produced by the fungi can destroy the viruses that cause diseases such as flu, polio, mumps, measles and glandular fever. Numerous fungi have also been found to produce compounds that could treat diseases that currently have no cure, such as HIV and the Zika virus.
"I believe these represent only a small part of the complete arsenal of bioactive compounds," says Linnakoski. "Mushrooms are a vast source of various bioactive molecules, which could potentially be used as antivirals in the future."
He is part of a research group that is studying whether the fungi that grow in the mangrove forests of Colombia could be sources of new antiviral agents. These goals have not yet been achieved, however. While fungi have been well studied as a source of antibiotics that act against bacteria, no fungicide antiviral drugs have been approved.
Linnakoski puts this obvious omission from the scientific community to the difficulty of collecting and growing many mushrooms from the natural environment and the historical lack of communication between mycologists and the virology community. But he believes it will only be a matter of time before a mushroom-based antiviral drug makes its way to the clinics.
Linnakoski also believes that the search for new species of fungi in inhospitable environments such as in the sediment at the bottom of the sea in some of the deepest parts of the ocean, or in the highly changeable conditions of mangrove forests, could produce still compounds more exciting.
"Extreme conditions are thought to cause fungi to produce unique and structurally unprecedented secondary metabolites," he says. "Unfortunately, many of the native ecosystems that hold great potential for discoveries of new bioactive compounds, such as mangrove forests, are disappearing at alarming rates."
A fungus found growing in a landfill on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, can quickly break down polyurethane plastic
But mushrooms have uses that can address other problems besides our health.
A fungus found growing in a landfill on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, could be a solution to the alarming levels of plastic pollution that clog our oceans. Fariha Hasan, a microbiologist at the Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, discovered mushrooms Aspergillus tubingensis can quickly break down polyurethane plastic.
These plastics, which produced a wide range of products including foams furniture, electronics enclosures, adhesives and films, can remain for years in the ground and in seawater. The mushrooms, however, have been found to break it down in a few weeks. Hasan and his team are now studying how to use mushrooms for large-scale degradation of plastic waste. Other fungi, such as Pestalotiopsis microspore that normally grow on decaying ivy leaves, have also been shown to have a prodigious appetite for plastic, fueling hopes that could be harnessed to tackle our growing waste problem .
In fact, mushrooms have a taste for pollution with which we contaminate our world. Species have been discovered that can clean up oil pollution from the soil, degrade harmful heavy metals, consume persistent pesticides and even help rehabilitate radioactive sites.
Mushrooms, however, could also help avoid the need to use some plastics in the first
A number of groups around the world are now trying to exploit a key feature of the fungi – the mycelium spider webs that produce – to create materials that can replace plastic packaging. As the mushrooms grow, these mycelium strands branch outward, to probe into the corners and crevices of the soil, binding them together. I am the glue of nature.
In 2010, Ecovative Design began to explore how they could use it to tie together natural waste such as rice husk or wood shavings to produce an alternative to polystyrene packaging. Their first works evolved into MycoComposite, which uses the remains of pieces of hemp as base material.
These are packaged in reusable molds along with spores and mushroom flour, which are then left to grow for nine days. While doing this, they produce enzymes that begin to digest waste. Once the material has grown to the desired shape, it is then treated with heat to dry the material and stop further growth. The resulting mushroom pack is biodegradable and is already used by companies like Dell to pack its computers.
The company has also developed a way of growing mycelium in foams that can be used in sneakers or insulators and fabrics that mimic skin. Working with the sustainable textile company Bolt Threats, he combines the corn stalks with the mycelium, turning it into a tanned and compressed carpet.
Stella McCartney is among the designers who are now trying to use this shoe and mushroom leather designer Liz Ciokajlo, who recently used the mycelium to create a modern reinterpretation of the fashion trend of 70's boots . .
It is possible to fine tune the qualities of the mycelium material by altering what must digest
Athanassia Athanassiou, a materials scientist at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, used mushrooms to develop new types of bandages for treatment of chronic wounds
But he also found that it is possible to tune the qualities of the mycelium material by altering what it has to digest. Harder is a substance for digestive fungi – such as wood chips rather than potato skins – for example the most rigid is the resulting mycelium material.
Raises the prospect of using mushrooms for more robust purposes.
California MycoWorks has developed methods to transform mushrooms into building materials. By fusing the wood together with the mycelium, they were able to create fireproof and more resistant bricks than conventional concrete.
Tien Huynh, a biotechnologist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, led a project to create similar fungal brick by combining mycelium from Trametes versicolor with rice hulls and shredded glass.
He says that not only do they provide a cheap and ecological building material, but they also help solve another problem that many face homes in Australia and around the world – termites. The silica content of rice and glass makes the material less palatable to termites, which cause billions of dollars worth of home damage every year.
"In our research, we also used fungi to produce enzymes and new biostructures for different properties including sound absorption, strength and flexibility," says Huynh. His team is also working on the use of mushrooms to produce chitin, a substance used to thicken foods and in many cosmetics.
"Usually chitin is transformed from seafood with hypoallergenic properties," he says. "Fungal chitin no. We will have more mushroom-based products later in the year but it is certainly a fascinating underutilized resource."
Mushrooms can also be used in combination with traditional building materials to create a "cement clever "that can heal itself as the mushrooms grow in all the cracks that form, secreting fresh calcium carbonate – the key raw material in the concrete – to repair the damage.
"The possibilities for what we could use mycelium are endless," says Gitartha Kalita, a bioengineering at Assam Engineering College University and Assam Don Bosco in Guwahati, India. He and his colleagues used mushrooms and hay to create an alternative to wood for construction. "All that we now call agricultural waste is actually an incredible resource on which mushrooms can grow. We have already degraded our environment and therefore are able to replace current materials with something that will somehow remain sustainable. our waste and turn it into something that is really precious to us. "
Join more than 900,000 fans of the future by enjoying us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter  or Instagram .
If you liked this story, subscribe to the weekly feature newsletter bbc.com entitled "If you read only 6 things this week". A selected selection of BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel stories, delivered to your inbox every Friday.