Nature Doesn’t Use an Autoclave

I was studying up on propagating mushroom spawn. The instructions I found at first started with an emphasis on requiring a clean room, or an air filtration hood, HEPA filters, an autoclave, 90% wood alcohol and chlorine, and pasteurization equipment. They babbled on about agar and petri dishes. By the time I was finished reading it, I had two prevailing thoughts:

  1. There’s no way in the world I could ever manage to do that the way they described.
  2. There’s GOTTA be an easier way, to simply replicate nature. Because NOTHING in the procedure they described had ANYTHING to do with nature.

So after a little more research, and some careful thought, I was able to come up with a process to do the same thing they were doing, in half the number of steps, that never once mentioned a clean room or autoclave.

The process they described not only called for sterilization of anything introduced into the process, it also called for sterilization OF the product. Now… Sterilization KILLS living things. That is the purpose of it! They were trying to PROPAGATE (that is, encourage the growth and reproduction of) a living thing. Sterilization of that living thing is counterproductive, to say the least! Even if it only involves sterilization of the outer surfaces, it will introduce genetic alterations to the entire body.

They were SO concerned with sterilizing everything, that they were willing to GUARANTEE damage in one way, in order to avoid the POSSIBILITY of damage in another way. Silly!

Nature doesn’t work that way. Nature works in a happy jumble of controlled and balanced contaminants. As long as you don’t get them out of balance, the risks are minimal.

Mushroom culture in an artificial environment has a HIGHER incident of bacterial and foreign fungal contamination than outdoor grown mushrooms. Now, people who grow them outdoors do not sterilize everything, and they don’t wear clean-room suits and booties to harvest. Artificial environments DO require that – and they chase themselves in an ever tightening circle of contamination elimination, which is a pursuit that is completely futile because you can NEVER eliminate all contaminants. NEVER.

What they have done, is create an environment with no natural limiters. So if a single contaminant gets in, it just runs unchallenged. This is blamed in careless or sloppy conditions. But it isn’t that at all. It is because of too MUCH control, not because of insufficient control. This is a primary problem with ALL industrialized farming and food processing.

In nature, naturally occurring bacteria and fungus balance and limit one another. This happens in the human body, and in the garden and forest, and even in your kitchen if you are not too much of a germophobe. The more sterile you try to make things, the more out of balance they get. Reasonable cleaning with water, and once a day with soap, keeps things IN balance. Washing hands after handling obvious contaminants is also wise. But trying to sterilize every surface is not only futile, it is counterproductive.

A little more research on mushroom culture shows that people have had great success in chopping up a mushroom with a clean knife, putting the pieces between sheets of fairly clean, damp cardboard, and letting it do its thing. The mushroom – having been intentionally inserted in LARGER amounts than any opportunistic contaminant, quickly propagates and overcomes any opportunistic contaminant anyway. Things stay in balance, with lots of peripheral contaminants running around doing their thing, and not hurting the mushroom culture that you wanted to grow in any way at all.

Nature is the same way. Mushroom spores culture every day, and they don’t do it in sterilized soil.

I heard the comment “But what if some other kind of fungus grows instead of the one we wanted?”. Not to worry. There are thousands of different kinds of fungus in the world. You are surrounded by them all the time, and they perform all kinds of useful tasks inside and outside of the human body, and in nature all around. Only two or three of them EVER look anything like the one you are trying to grow. The chance that one of THOSE would grow at all in the environment in which you are attempting to culture your prize mushrooms, is a gazillion to one chance against that ever happening. Everything else that might grow there would be present in SMALLER concentrations than your deliberately cultured mushrooms, so they’d have a hard time producing much visible fruit in the first place, and in the second place, if they did manage to, it would look so different than what you are culturing, that you’d easily recognize it. The WORST possible outcome would be that it might SLIGHTLY diminish the productivity of your mushroom environment. That just isn’t even anything to worry about!

I’ve used mushroom culture to illustrate the point here, but it applies to all areas of life. Properly managed gardens and farms are never sterile, and the fact that they are not is a BENEFIT, not a problem! Once we start trying to introduce unnatural controls into a natural environment, we begin an escalation of a sequence of problems that only grow the more we try to constrain them. You can’t put nature on a leash and not expect to get your hand chewed off. It isn’t reasonable to expect that man can do something better than nature. Nature has just had way more practice at it!

Any time you see instructions for cultivation of anything that starts with “you will need a clean room environment”, or “a ratio of 18% protein and 13% soluble fats”, or even “a finely prepared soil-bed that has been double dug and enhanced with a 1″ layer of compost tilled in to a depth of 6”, you may know you are in the presence of a fool who thinks they know more than they really know. A mushroom does not grow best in a clean room environment, a chicken does not naturally eat soy meal or calculate the protein content of the food it eats, and Adam and Eve cultivated food for their rather large family using wooden tools which were not capable of finely tilling the soil (yes, there are easier ways, but the point is, they grew a successful garden without double digging).

Humanity prospered long before scientists analyzed everything to death and determined to make it more complicated than it has to be.

Keep it simple, and go back to the way nature really does it, and everything gets amazingly simple, and solidly successful.

Update: Since writing this, we have successfully propagated mushrooms in non-sterile conditions. Multiple types, in various mediums.

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