Termitomyces is the world’s largest edible fungus, with mushrooms that can grow up to a metre in diameter. Its protein content is at the high end among edible mushrooms and higher than chicken.
It is also rich in all nine essential amino acids, and the amino acid composition of the fungus is at the same level as that of meat products and superior to that of plant-based proteins. The catch is, as the name suggests, it needs termites to grow.
Fungal farming termites are of the subfamily Macrotermitinae and live in tropical Africa and Southeast Asia.
Termitomyces fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with their termite hosts. In short, termites collect, then munch on dead plant materials such as leaves, wood and grass, which pass through their intestines in a semi-digested state before being excreted into the termite nest.
There, in specially designed chambers with carefully regulated temperature and humidity, the termites tend to their fungal farms.
As the termites spread their faeces over the fungus, plant material is broken down, allowing the fungus to grow. Finally, the termites consume the fungus as their only food source.
But these fungi don’t just feed termites. Once a year, they sprout monstrous mushrooms that are collected and sold as an expensive delicacy in Chinese markets and rural areas of Southeast Asia and Africa, where they are an important food source.
“Generally, mushrooms are a good source of protein – and we need sustainable protein alternatives to meat,” said Professor Michael Poulsen of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology.
“However, relatively few types of edible mushrooms are on the market today – with the ones that are, primarily grown because they are easy to cultivate, not because of their nutritional and health value. H
ere we have a mushroom that has already been naturally optimized to be an ideal food source for animals, meaning that it is also high in qualities as a human food source.”