Truly Magical Mushrooms

Paul Stamets thinks fungi can protect us from disease, pollution, even chemical weapons

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Once you’ve heard “renaissance mycologist” Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms, you’ll never look at the world—not to mention your backyard—the same way again. Stamets runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned gourmet and medicinal mushroom business in Shelton, Washington. His convictions about the role that mushrooms can play in the development of earth-friendly technologies and medicines have led him to collect and clone more than 250 strains of wild mushrooms—which he stores in several on- and off-site gene libraries.

Until recently, claims Stamets, mushrooms “suffered from biological racism.” But he is about to bring these fungi to the attention of the medical and environmental establishments. In collaboration with several public and private agencies, he is pioneering the use of “mycoremediation” and “mycofiltration” technologies. These involve the cultivation of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites, improve ecological and human health, and, in a particularly timely bit of experimentation, break down chemical warfare agents. “Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet,” says Stamets, who predicts that bioremediation using fungi will soon be a billion-dollar industry.

A former logger, Stamets is not your typical scientist. “Some people think I’m a mycological heretic, some people think I’m a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I’m crazy,” he says cheerfully. His discussions of mushroom form and function are sprinkled with provocative mycological metaphors, among them his belief that “fungal intelligence” provides a framework for understanding everything from string theory in modern physics to the structure of the Internet.

In a recent interview, Stamets spoke of a yet-to-be-unveiled project he calls the “life box,” his plan for “regreening the planet” using fungi. “It’s totally fun, totally revolutionary. It’s going to put smiles on the faces of grandmothers and young children,” he says.

Statements like those make it tempting to dismiss Stamets as either chock-full of hubris or somewhat deluded. But while many academic mycologists tend to question both his style and his methods, Stamets’ status as an innovative entrepreneur is hard to dispute. “Paul has a solid grounding in cultivation and has expanded from that base to show there are other ways of using and cultivating mushrooms than just for food,” says Gary Lincoff, author of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.

An adviser and consultant to the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School and a 1998 recipient of the Collective Heritage Institute’s Bioneers Award (see sidebar, p. 82), Stamets has made a convert out of more than one researcher in the mainstream medical and environmental communities.

“He’s the most creative thinker I know,” says Dr. Donald Abrams, assistant director of the AIDS program at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Abrams says he became interested in the medicinal properties of mushrooms after hearing one of Stamets’ lectures. Stamets is now a co-investigator on a grant proposal Abrams is authoring on the anti-HIV properties of oyster mushrooms.

Mycoremediation may sound Brave New World–ish, but the concept behind it is decidedly low tech: think composting, not genetic engineering. Most gardeners know that a host of microorganisms convert rotting vegetables, decaying leaves, and coffee grounds into the nutrient-rich soil required for plant growth. Fungi play a key role in this process. In fact, one of their primary roles in the ecosystem is decomposition.

The same principle is at work in mycoremediation. “We just have a more targeted approach,” says Stamets. “And choosing the species of fungi that are most effective is absolutely critical to the success of the project.”

Fungal decomposition is the job of the mycelium, a vast underground network that permeates the soil. (The mushroom itself is the fruit of the mycelium.) Now recognized as the largest biological entities on the planet, some individual mycelial mats cover more than 2,000 acres.

As it turns out, some mushroom networks can also decompose petroleum products, pesticides, and herbicides. A couple of years ago Stamets partnered with Battelle Laboratories, a major player in the bioremediation industry, on an experiment conducted at a site owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Diesel oil had contaminated the site, which the mycoremediation team inoculated with a strain of mycelium that Stamets had collected from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Two other bioremediation teams—one using enzymes, the other using engineered bacteria—were also given sections of the contaminated soil to test.

After four weeks, oyster mushrooms up to 12 inches in diameter had formed on the contaminated soil. After eight weeks, 95 percent of the hydrocarbons had broken down, and the soil was deemed nontoxic and suitable for use in highway landscaping. By contrast, neither of the other two bioremediated sites showed significant changes.

And that, says Stamets, was just the beginning of the end of the story. As the mushrooms rotted away, “fungus gnats” moved in to eat the spores. The gnats attracted other insects, which attracted birds, which brought in seeds.

“The [mushroom] fruit bodies become environmental plateaus for the attraction and succession of other biological communities,” Stamets says. “Ours was the only site that became an oasis of life, leading to ecological restoration. That story is probably repeated all over the planet.”

At Fungi Perfecti, a rural compound not far from Olympia, Washington, signs warn visitors not to enter without an appointment, and security cameras equipped with motion sensors guard several free-standing laboratories and a mushroom “grow” room. “My concerns are personal safety and commercial espionage,” says Stamets, explaining that competitors and mycological hangers-on (not always a stable lot, apparently) have a tendency to show up unannounced.

Then there’s the small problem of marketing a product associated in some people’s minds with drug abuse. In the late 1970s, Stamets did pioneering research at nearby Evergreen State College on psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms; he later published a definitive identification guide: Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World.

“I drew the line a long time ago,” says Stamets. “But I’ll never apologize for that work. Everything I did was covered by a Drug Enforcement Agency license.”

Today, Stamets spends much of his time cloning wild mushrooms. He has identified strains of mushrooms with the ability to decompose certain toxins and has adapted them to new environments. As reported in Jane’s Defence Weekly, one of Stamets’ strains was found to “completely and efficiently degrade” chemical surrogates of VX and sarin, the potent nerve gases Saddam Hussein loaded into his warheads.

“We have a fungal genome that is diverse and present in the old-growth forests, Hussein does not. . .” says Stamets. We should be saving our old-growth forests as a matter of national defense.”

Stamets recently collaborated with the Washington Transportation Department on another project designed to prevent erosion on decommissioned logging roads, which send silt and pollutants toward stream beds where salmon reproduce. In a process Stamets terms “mycofiltration,” bark and wood chips were placed onto road surfaces and inoculated with fungi. The mycelial networks not only helped to build and retain soil but also filtered out pollutants and sediments, lessening negative effects on the watershed.

Stamets envisions broad future uses of mycofiltration, one of which involves bridging the gap between ecological and human health. It’s been more than 70 years since Alexander Fleming discovered that the mold fungus Penicillium is effective against bacteria. And yet, complains Stamets, nobody has paid much attention to the antiviral and antibiotic properties of mushrooms—partly because Americans, unlike Asian cultures, think mushrooms are for pizza, not the medicine chest.

But with the emergence of widespread antibiotic resistance in hospitals, Stamets says, pharmaceutical industry researchers are now looking at mushrooms for new medicines. Stamets himself, based on a recent study documenting the ability of the mushroom Polyporus umbellatus to completely inhibit the parasite that causes malaria, has come up with a mycofiltration approach to combating the disease.

Stamets is the Johnny Appleseed of mushrooms, spreading the gospel about the power of fungi to benefit the world. He urges gardeners to inoculate their backyards with mycorrhizae, fungi that enter into beneficial relationships with plant roots, and to grow shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms, among the very best decomposers and builders of soil.

But Stamets’ vision doesn’t stop there. In the conference room at Fungi Perfecti, with a 2,000-year-old carved mushroom stone from Guatemala hovering, shamanlike, over him, he explains his far-reaching theory of the mushroom’s mycelial structure.

“We know now that 75 to 90 percent of the mass in the cosmos is in the form of dark matter, conforming to string theory, and is mycelial-like in structure.

“I believe the earth’s natural Internet is the mycelial network,” he adds. “That is the way of nature. If there is any destruction of the neurological landscape, the mycelial network does not die; it’s able to adapt, recover, and change. That’s the whole basis of the computer Internet. The whole design patterns something that has been reproduced through nature and has been evolutionarily successful over millions of years.”

The day after our interview in October, Stamets called to point out a New York Times article on self-replicating universes—an article, he suggested, that reinforced his ideas about the generative power of mycelium. In describing the way universes might multiply, the reporter used the following felicitous metaphor: “For some cosmologists, that means universes sprouting from one another in an endless geometric progression, like mushrooms upon mushrooms upon mushrooms.”

Where is Stamets going with all this? “I have a strategy for creating ecological footprints on other planets,” he says. “By using a consortium of fungi and seeds and other microorganisms, you could actually seed other planets with little plops. You could actually start keystone species and go to creating vegetation on planets. I think that’s totally doable.”

From the online magazine Salon.com (Nov. 25, 2002).