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Seventeen Minutes of Science: The Coming ‘Shroom Boom?

Tune in weekly to our virtual series “Seventeen Minutes of Science” every Tuesday at 11am PST / 2pm ET where we go live on Facebook with a new guest each week to talk about how science and biotechnology is woven into their lives for (you guessed it) 17 minutes!

For episode 55 we talked with John Donoghue, the President of Northwest Mycological Consultants Inc. about mushrooms – about what his company does to support industrial mushroom growth and their potential uses in almost every industry from leather and packaging to meat alternatives and nutraceuticals.

John Donoghue is president of Northwest Mycological Consultants, Inc (NMC), an Oregon-based firm serving the specialty-mushroom industry since 1985. NMC produces top-quality spawn and supplies for the commercial mushroom industry worldwide and has developed a line of automated inoculation equipment and a suite of mushroom cultivation bags specifically for the spawn and specialty -mushroom industries.

John has been instrumental in developing the specialty mushroom industry in the Pacific Northwest and has worked on mushroom-production and research projects around the globe, including in Vietnam, Laos, Bhutan, Colombia, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Argentina, Iceland and Australia. John Donoghue is a coauthor of “The Shiitake Growers Handbook, the Art and Science of Mushroom Cultivation”, a definitive resource for shiitake growers worldwide He has published dozens of scientific research and industry review articles about mushroom cultivation and has given presentations at industry and scientific meetings on most continents. John has a unique perspective of mushroom cultivation based on his far -flung involvement with a diverse array of production systems and research projects.

Tune in to learn more from John about all things mushrooms!

This week’s episode was hosted by Dr. Shawn Lockery, the Co-founder & CTO of InVivo Biosystems and a professor of biology at the University of Oregon.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:00:10] Well, hello and welcome to 17 Minutes of Science. My name is  Shawn Lockery and I am co-founder and Chief Technology Officer here at InVivo Biosystems. And it’s my great pleasure to introduce today’s guests, Mr. John Donoghue, president of the Northwest Mycological Consultants. John’s been a mushroom grower, researcher, and a consultant for more than 30 years, and he’s worked on numerous projects not only here in the US Northwest, but also in places far afield, including Vietnam, Laos, Bhutan, Columbia, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Argentina, Iceland and Australia. And many of – and among his many publications is the book “The Shiitake Growers Handbook, the Art and Science of Mushroom Cultivation”, a definitive resource for shiitake growers worldwide. And there you see it exists. John, welcome to the program.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:01:10] Thank you, Shawn. Sorry I’m late.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:01:12] That’s all right. It’s better late than never.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:01:15] That’s good.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:01:16] So, John, you know, most of us think of mushrooms as those little toadstool shaped things that poke up from the soil in our gardens and meadows. But I understand there’s much more to the organism than that. How do toad -how do toadstools relate to the greater a greater fungus.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:01:31] Yeah. So they’re one little chunk of the fungi. Yeasts are another, that make beer and stuff and they’re just usually single-celled things. But a lot of the mushroom mushrooms that we think about are the – the mushroom itself is just the the fruiting body of the of the fungus. So it would be in some vague way similar to an apple and an apple tree. But this network of hyphae the thin, stranded things that can go all through the soil or wood or whatever, they excrete enzymes and break down different things for different fungi and get their nutrients that way. They breathe much like we do where they, most of them use, there’s many kinds, but a lot of them, all the mushrooms I think that you’re thinking about would use oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. And here’s like I can show you the – So this would be, if we could see it, but this would be grain. That’s rye grain in this case, and it’s been put in this bag and sterilized and then inoculated with some other rye grains that had already been colonized with pure culture of, in this case, Shiitake. And you can see the white there, white patches growing out from the grain. And, you know, so they radiate out from the grains and then ultimately will – completely colonized the stuff and during this – you know, what they’re doing is they’re breaking down the, initially the easy sugars and whatnot, but breaking down the grain in order to get nutrients. And then then ultimately, Primordia will form, which are the start of mushrooms, and then those will develop into what are called pins and then into mushrooms, as we know and love.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:03:48] Does it does it damage the overall organism when we pick mushrooms? When we go mushroom hunting?


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:03:54] Yes. So when you pick a mushroom out from somewhere, you’re typically you’re just picking the fruiting body. So you’re not picking all of that stuff, which is it’s main body, I think, you know, the biggest organism in the world is a fungus. And it’s – I don’t know if it’s in Washington State or Michigan. It used to be in Michigan. And it’s this one, honey mushroom Armillaria mellea. And it’s acres and acres of miles, I think, of the ground that’s covered with all one individual, which they can tell through genetic means or one individual of of this Hypha. And, you know, it will, it’s a wood rotting thing. So so it will grow up on trees and in that case, kill.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:04:36] Well. Well, I was actually I was just reading about that in anticipation of our conversation. And it according to my sources, it’s actually in Oregon. Hello. And it’s sort of near the Malheur National Forest and it is damaging trees apparently. And, that’s kind of how they discovered it.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:04:57] Yeah.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:04:58] I was wondering if had ever gone out there to have a look at it, but apparently not yet.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:05:02] Not yet. I haven’t done that. You know, when they first started doing that work, it was in Michigan and then Washington said, oh, we have one. And actually a friend of mine, Mike McWilliams, I don’t know if you know him. He’s a dancer and whatnot, you know, but he he does flyovers for looking for disease trees. He’s a he’s a forest pathologist. And he actually found that place.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:05:22] I see, OK. Are the honey mushrooms edible and do they taste good?


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:05:26] Yeah, the honey mushrooms are good and you know, they’re sold commercially in Japan and stuff, you know, typically harvested from the wild. They’re good. They are very – they’re tough to to identify because they look really, really different one from the other. So, you know, it’s not sort of not for the novice. I don’t think.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:05:45]  I see. And I imagine they might look similar to something that you wouldn’t want to eat.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:05:50] Right. Right. Well, and the one that the one that the Armillaria mellea, is the one that people eat, you know, the Armillaria that’s out there is a different species. And I think it’s edible, too. But I wouldn’t mess with it.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:06:03] Ok, fair enough. I’ll take your advice. So, you know, going forward here, what first drew you to mycology and in general and cultivating mushrooms in particular if you’re at liberty to disclose.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:06:16] Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. So, well, I grew up a bit in Japan and of course in Japan they – you know, mushrooms are part of their thing. And and then ultimately, I would, after my, you know, my dissident days as a high schooler – then went to Michigan State University and was kind of drawn into the Mycological thing, although there there’s some great people there for mushrooms and stuff. But anyway, at at that point, I ran into this book by a guy named Rolf Singer, and it was it’s what’s it called? Mushrooms, and man [Mushrooms and Truffles: Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization]… I can’t remember the name of it even now, but they had a section in there about shiitake growing in Japan. And I thought, oh, well, that’s it. I got to do that. And what’s interesting is – and so I started pursuing that. But what’s interesting is that ultimately many years later, I got to go with Rolf Singer to Japan and we went to a bunch of various different mushroom farms and whatnot. So it was a neat little circle thing. One of life’s fun circles.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:07:22] Putting the fun back into fungus, they say.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:07:24] Yeah, that’s right. But really what is funny, what I usually tell people is my brother’s name, Mike. And so I’m studying people named Mike, so I’m a Mike-cologist.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:07:38] I bet your brother was thrilled by that connection.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:07:39] Yes.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:07:44] So my understanding is that you were one of the first employees, if employee, is quite the right word at Northwest Mycological Consultants, which, for the audience, is an Oregon based company serving the specialty mushroom growing industry, which has been active since about 1985. How did you get started with NMC and what is what is your role there today?


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:08:05] Well, by that time I was growing shitake which – and so in in the you know, I started growing shitake in the late 70s and at that time having that organism in the states was illegal because they thought it would become the next dutch elm disease. And it’s not a pathogen of trees at all. So they were just kind of scared. But so so I had a number of years of growing and selling mushrooms, you know, shiitake mushrooms. And Bill Denison, who was, now passed, but was a mycologist at OSU, Oregon State. He kept getting queries from people, you know, what about growing mushrooms? What about, you know, how do I deal with mold in my, you know, walls and stuff like that? And I thought, well, what there needs to be is a company that is a consulting company basically that is made up of people who know something about all those things and they can sort of, you know, parse out who is the best person for whatever. And so that’s when I got involved with them because I knew about mushroom growing. And that actually became the main sort of bread and butter of NMC and led to, you know, like I say, there wasn’t really anybody growing shiitake. And then, you know, with NMC with with reliable spawn, you know, the seed for growing mushrooms – what I was just showing you in the bags and technology transfer and, you know, that sort of thing. Oregon became the second highest producer of shiitake and in the States. Pennsylvania being the first. And, you know, so that’s NMC been real vital to helping that happen.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:10:03] And so what is your role there now?


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:10:05] Well, I’m the president now, you know.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:10:08] OK, that can mean a lot.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:10:09] And I didn’t get outvoted.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:10:13] I mean, I sort of imagine you out on the floor checking the machines and making keeping them –


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:10:18] Oh yeah, yeah yeah.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:10:19] – probably also heavily into operations.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:10:21] Yeah. Operations and whatnot. And so, you know, the these bags that I was showing you. So these are these bags. What happens is, is that the whatever the the substrate is, the stuff that the mushrooms are growing on, typically, although, you know, these things are mostly wood rotting organisms. So they’re, you know, evolved to be in wood and and grow and break down wood. Well, and that’s what I started doing, you know, growing shiitake in natural logs and drill holes and stick little dowels or sawdust that’s colonised with the stuff in there. And while I did, it ultimately goes mushrooms, but most of it now worldwide, even, of those mushrooms and are grown on sterilized or heat-treated sawdust where the sawdust is ultimately put into one of these bags. And there’s many different ways, the typical ways that the sawdust with some grain, some nutrients added to it and hydrated water are put into bags and then sterilized or heat-treated either for – if it’s sterilized for like three and a half hours. And if it’s just steam room, then it might be more like 12 hours. Those are cooled. And then some of this spawn, the grains from that – what I showed earlier – are put in, to the bag, usually in front of a filter hood that keeps out all of other organisms. And then then the bag is sealed up. But the thing with these bags of this thing right here is there is a filter pack that, behind it in the bag, but behind it in a bag, there’s a hole in the back, cut in the bag. And and this filter allows gases, oxygen to go, and CO2 to pass between the filter, but keeps out other organisms. So you get to grow your your fungus in in just by itself in this bag for – until it’s fully colonized and then then part or all of that bag is removed and there’re mushrooms. So what we do is we’re, you know, [we] made machines to make these bags and we sell them all over the world and and then we produce spawn, grain spawn, for that. And and that’s mostly, although we you know, we’ve shipped, as far as I know, the other side of Canada and Texas. But most of it’s more local and, you know, so bags and spawn and whatnot and then work with farms to keep them goings if they’re having trouble, figure out what the troubles are, helped start up, that sort of thing. So and and then we’ve done a bunch of sort of basic research, like one of the things I spent a lot of time on is what’s the influence of the gas levels in the bag that’s determined by, among other things, the filter patch. What’s that? How does that influence the crop? And it turns up just as you expect. If you were to stick a bag with a little hole over your head, you wouldn’t be as productive if you stuck a bag with a big hole up your head. You know, it’s not rocket science, but in the mushroom growing industry it really hadn’t thought about much. And then, you know, we’ve done a bunch with sort of doing sort of coke’s postulating, like what, what is this disease these people are having? You know, and-


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:13:46] I’m sorry, I didn’t hear I didn’t hear the name. What’s the disease?


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:13:49] Well, a bunch of different well, in that case, bacterial diseases. There are some there was a bacterial we called it brownsenerot that was never seen in shiitake before, but had been seen a bit in Button mushrooms in Australia. And it became a thing that that really knocked back the growers around here. And so the question was, well, what first of all, what’s the organism? And then secondly is how how do you manage the crop to not have the problem and, you know, figuring out how did that – how did that organism cause disease. And how did it, trying to figure out how it got there. It turns out it came from East Coast production.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:14:32] Well, you know, many of the audience here, I’m sure, will agree that mushrooms are all over the media these days. We hear about them, of course, as centuries old medicines and nutraceuticals. But new applications seem to appear all the time where I’ve now been reading about mushroom meat, mushroom leather and mushroom biofuel and something I think you told me about earlier called Mycoremediation. And there’s even, as you know, a resurgence of psychedelic mushrooms in the treatment of various psychological disorders. Where is your industry going?


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:15:07] Well, that’s a good question. I mean, it’s certainly diversifying from just, you know, growing mushrooms, you know, so – you know, that people eat, culinary things. So, you know, a lot of the specialty mushroom growers, which, you know, non- button mushrooms growers, those are sort of very different farm situations. Most of those are wood rotting things that are that are, you know, good edible. But a lot of them are also, not only a good edibles, but they also have properties that people can isolate that help with things like cancer and a bunch of disease things, high blood pressure and that kind of thing. And so now what you find is people are growing those and turning them into powders and putting in pills and people take pills because I think most people – it’s changing in the states. But the demographics used to be people would think mushrooms would kill you if you ate them. Or the only mushroom they knew was the button mushroom canned, on something that they didn’t like. So that’s really changed starting in the mid 80s, really. But but now what you have is a lot of these – there’s farms that just grow things that are really you know, you wouldn’t consider an edible mushroom here in the States, but they grow those for for nutraceutical ingredients.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:16:37] I see. Well, you know, we’ve got just about a little less than a minute left. Oh, this has been wonderful chatting with you. Did you have something you wanted to take us out with?


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:16:46] Oh, I did. I did. I don’t know if I can –


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:16:51] I see I see a creation in the background there.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:17:01] Oh you can’t see –  That’s better. There’s the mushroom.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:17:07] Okay, so it’s dancing. So that’s a pig dancing on a mushroom to a guy playing a fiddle while he taps his feet on. And so I thank you very much, John. I mean, I look forward to further communication with you in the future. And I want to thank everyone who has joined us for this session on “the coming shroom boom?”


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:17:30] Thank you.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:17:30] That’s great. Shawn, thank you very much. Thanks for having me on here. Thanks, everybody.


Dr. Shawn Lockery (Host): [00:17:34] Over and out.


John Donoghue (Guest): [00:17:35] All right.

About The Author

InVivo Biosystems

InVivo Biosystems provides essential services to help pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, biotechnology companies and academic research institutions around the globe accelerate their research and drug development efforts. An expert in CRISPR genome editing, InVivo Biosystems creates custom genome edited C. elegans and zebrafish models to enable aging and other disease studies. In addition, InVivo Biosystems provides in-vivo analytical services to produce data and insights for companies that need to make go/no-go decisions quickly in early-stage development of new compounds.

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