The Power of Mushrooms

mushrooms-discover-magazine joyce reyMycologists study the branch of botany concerned with fungi and all things mushroom-related.  Mycologist Paul Stamets is highlighted in this great article in Discovery magazine that claims mushrooms can “clean up everything from oil spills to nuclear meltdowns.” Further, he claims they have been shown to reverse cancer and reduce blood sugar! It is a long article but definitely worth the read.


 

For Paul Stamets, the phrase “mushroom hunt” does not denote a leisurely stroll with a napkin-lined
basket. This morning, a half-dozen of us are struggling to keep up with the mycologist as he charges
through a fir-and-alder forest on Cortes Island, British Columbia. It’s raining steadily, and the moss
beneath our feet is slick, but Stamets, 57, barrels across it like a grizzly bear heading for a stump full of
honey. He vaults over fallen trees, scrambles up muddy ravines, plows through shin-deep puddles in his
rubber boots. He never slows down, but he halts abruptly whenever a specimen demands his attention.
This outing is part of a workshop on the fungi commonly known as mushrooms —
a class of organisms whose cell walls are stiffened by a molecule called chitin instead of the cellulose
found in plants, and whose most ardent scientific evangelist is the man ahead of us. Stamets is trying to
find a patch of chanterelles, a variety known for its exquisite flavor. But the species that stop him in his
tracks, and bring a look of bliss to his bushy-bearded face, possess qualities far beyond the culinary.

He points to a clutch of plump oyster mushrooms halfway up an alder trunk. “These could clean up oil
spills all over the planet,” he says. He ducks beneath a rotting log, where a rare, beehive-like Agarikon
dangles. “This could provide a defense against weaponized smallpox.” He plucks a tiny, gray Mycena
alcalina from the soil and holds it under our noses. “Smell that? It seems to be outgassing chlorine.” To
Stamets, that suggests it can break down toxic chlorine-based polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Most Americans think of mushrooms as ingredients in soup or intruders on a well-tended lawn. Stamets,
however, cherishes a grander vision, one trumpeted in the subtitle of his 2005 book, Mycelium Running:
How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Mushroom-producing fungi, he believes, can serve as game
changers in fields as disparate as medicine, forestry, pesticides and pollution control. He has spent the
past quarter-century preaching that gospel to anyone who will listen.

Stamets occupies some of his days teaching fungus aficionados and would-be mycotechnologists, both here
at the eco-oriented Hollyhock Lifelong Learning Centre and at his mushroom farm in Washington state. He
runs a business that has 47 employees and ships goods worldwide. Somehow, he also manages to juggle a
diverse array of experiments — often in tandem with researchers at universities or nonprofit outfits — aimed
at finding fungal solutions to global problems. “The path to the future,” he likes to say, “is the path of the
mycelium.”

A Planetary Web

However poetically expressed, Stamets’ notion that mushrooms bridge human and environmental immune systems is grounded in solid biology. On the evolutionary tree, the animal and fungal kingdoms sprout from the same branch, splitting from each other long after plants diverged. And fungi knit together the lives of plants, animals and the Earth itself in some very concrete ways.

There are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi, comprising yeasts and molds along with mushroomproducing
macrofungi. All these organisms share certain basic traits with animals: They inhale oxygen
and exhale carbon dioxide, as we do, and they are susceptible to many of the same germs. Like us, they
get their energy by consuming other life forms rather than by photosynthesis.

If his data were less persuasive, he might be dismissed as an eccentric myco-utopian. Stamets has no
regular academic or institutional affiliation; his research is funded mostly by the profits from his private
company, Fungi Perfecti, which sells gourmet and medicinal mushrooms (along with growing kits,
mushroom-derived supplements and mushroom-related books and knickknacks) by mail order and at
health food stores.

With his Woodstockian hirsuteness and frank enthusiasm for mushrooms of the psychoactive sort, Paul Stamets shows off mushrooms in a growing room at Fungi Perfecti, his family business and farm. Work done there has inspired potential solutions to such global problems as radioactive waste, global warming,
oil spills and cancer.

Although he’s obsessed with finding new uses for mushrooms, Stamets is also a passionate scholar of
ancient mycotechnology. He often wears one example: a Stamets often comes across more as a hippie mystic
than a dispassionate scientist. “Our bodies and our environs are habitats with immune systems,” he writes
in Mycelium Running, and fungi “are a common bridge between the two.” He describes mycelium, the web of
fibrous tissue from which mushrooms spring, as “the neurological network of nature,” a “sentient membrane”
that has “the long-term health of the host environment in mind.” To some, such language seems uncomfortably
metaphysical.

Yet Stamets’ ideas have gained an expanding audience among mainstream scientists, environmental engineers,
federal officials and Silicon Valley investors. His 2008 talk at the TED Conference, the annual hajj of tech
barons and thought leaders, has snagged more than 1.5 million hits since it was posted online; it also earned
Stamets invitations to brainstorming sessions with Bill Gates, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the guys who
run Google.

“It helps that he’s brilliant,” says Eric Rasmussen, a former Defense Department scientist and disaster
expert collaborating with Stamets to decontaminate the zone around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor
with mushrooms. Rasmussen compares Stamets to visionary entrepreneur-scientists like Thomas Edison
or “some of the truly fine amateur naturalists or astronomers of the 17th and 18th centuries — people who
were experts in their fields, but had other ways to occupy their days.” But a fungus’s body is radically different from an animal’s. Yeasts are unicellular, while molds and macrofungi take the form of mycelia, networks of threadlike membranes, each a single cell thick, that can infest a rotting orange, infiltrate acres of woodland or fuse together to make a mushroom. Mycelia absorb nutrients from their surroundings and can rapidly
change their growth patterns and other behavior in response to the environment.

“They have cellular intelligence,” Stamets says. “When you walk through the forest, they leap up in search of
debris to feed on. They know you’re there.” When fungi colonized land a billion years ago, some
established a niche as Earth’s great decomposers — key to the creation of soil. Their mycelia exude enzymes and
acids that turn rock into biologically accessible minerals traditional Transylvanian hat made of amadou, the
spongy inner layer of horse’s hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius), which can be processed into a warm,
feltlike fabric. Highly flammable, amadou has also served as tinder for flintlock guns and prehistoric
campfires. (Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old “ice man” found in an Alpine glacier, was carrying the stuff in his pouch.) Its absorbent and antimicrobial properties made it ideal for dressing wounds and preserving foods. And amadou was the first medicinal mushroom on record: “Hippocrates described it in 450 B.C. as an anti-inflammatory,” Stamets notes.

Species known as mycorrhizal fungi use their mycelia to envelop or penetrate plant roots, contributing nitrogen
compounds and mineral salts in exchange for sugars from the host organism. (When a sapling is languishing
in the shade of a larger tree, these fungi can sense the problem and send the youngster extra nourishment.)
Mushroom-producing fungi feed animals; animals return the favor by spreading fungal spores.
To ward off pathogens, fungi have developed an arsenal of antibacterial and antiviral compounds — a
resource that traditional peoples harnessed in the form of mushroom teas and foodstuffs. Alexander
Fleming exploited them in more modern fashion when he isolated penicillin from the Penicillium rubens
mold in 1929. Fungi can also parasitize and kill insects, including those troublesome to us.
For millennia, humans have exploited microfungi (molds and yeasts) to create edibles such as cheese,
bread, beer and wine. But in Western culture, Stamets observes, the powers of macrofungi have been
largely ignored, an attitude he refers to as “mycophobia” or “biological racism.” Mushrooms were
relegated to the Campbell’s can, or outlawed when they blew too many minds. They were discounted,
devalued, shunted aside.

Just as Paul Stamets was, before he found his own mycelial path.

The Mycelial Path

To understand how Stamets came to believe mushrooms could save the world, it helps to know how they
saved Stamets.

He was born in 1955 in Salem, Ohio, one of four brothers. His father, an engineer, owned a firm that
oversaw construction projects for the U.S. Army. Stamets was a shy kid with a crippling stutter who
dreamed of becoming a trailblazing scientist. “We lived in a big house with a lab in the basement,” he
recalls, “and I looked up every experiment I could find.” He nearly blew the place up on several occasions
while tinkering with chemicals.

Then, when he was 12, his father’s business failed and the family splintered. Stamets’ mother decamped
with him and his twin brother to a small apartment in Columbiana, Ohio, where they lived in poverty.
Eventually, she moved with the boys to her own parents’ vacation home near Seattle and sent them on
scholarship to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Stamets felt like a misfit among preppies. He threw
himself into martial arts (later earning black belts in both tae kwon do and hwa rang do) and identified
with the counterculture that was reaching its crest.

During his senior year, Stamets and his brother were expelled for selling marijuana to fellow students.
They hitchhiked back to Seattle, where they finished high school at a public institution. Stamets spent a
summer toiling as a sawmill hand before enrolling at Kenyon College in Ohio. But he still felt out of place
and spent hours wandering in the woods off campus.

That’s where he headed the day he tried hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. He
climbed a tree, but was too intoxicated to climb down. Soon a thunderstorm blew in, and he was lashed
by rain and wind. As lightning struck nearby, he realized he could die at any moment, yet the scene was
overwhelmingly beautiful. He felt part of the forest and the universe as never before. He reflected on his
life and how to change it. “Stop stuttering now, Paul,” he told himself, repeating the phrase like a mantra.
When the weather calmed, he climbed down and hiked home. On his street, he ran into a neighbor whose
attractiveness had always intensified his stammer. “Hi,” she said. “How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks,” he answered, with an ease that astonished him. “And you?”