Shrooms: Not Just For Salad Anymore

 

 

          By Kelly Hearn, AlterNet

          Posted on August 29, 2004, Printed on September 1, 2004

          http://www.alternet.org/story/19680/

 

To lots of folks, a middle-aged man who says mushrooms can save the

world falls into the category of turbo-freak. But to some

environmentalists, scientists and major investors, Paul Stamets is the

trippiest of profitable kings.

 

"Mushrooms restore health both on the personal and ecological level,"

says Stamets, mycologist and owner of Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned

mushroom business in Shelton, Wash. "Mushrooms can heal people and the

planet."

 

Stamets, a former logger turned scanning electron microscopist, is bent

on showing that fungal mycelium and mushrooms (the actual mushroom is

the fruit of the mycelium) are the cornerstone of several

Earth-friendly, multi-billion dollar industries. To him, there's no end

to what spores can do.

 

Collaborating with public and private agencies from Batelle Industries

to the National Institutes of Health, Stamets is giving shrooms their 15

minutes of fame, promoting them as antiviral and antibacterial agents,

as well as key boosters to the human immune system.

 

Outside the body, Stamets says he has cloned mycelia and mushrooms that

can kill pests, absorb radioactive material, filter toxic wastes and,

according to an article in Jane's Defense Weekly, even degrade

surrogates of deadly VX and sarin gas.

 

Stamets, who has collected over 250 strains of wild mushrooms, says that

until now, they were largely ignored by environmentalists and

scientists. He has filed for dozens of patents, he says, with more to

follow. "Every failure is a cost of tuition of the education you have

come to learn," he says, "You graduate to greater and greater techniques."

 

Survivors of Catastrophe

 

Mushrooms graduated through evolution to become acute survivors that

recycle life after devastation. About 250 million years ago, after a

massive extinction from a meteorite, Stamets says fungi inherited the

Earth and "recycled the post-cataclysmic debris fields."

 

Today they are a keystone species spanning large swaths of land and

secreting enzymes and acids that break down plant matter (which, lucky

enough, has chemical bonds similar to contaminants like petroleum and

pesticides).

 

"The 21st century will be the century of the biologist," Stamets says in

nod to technologies that are exposing life's basic microcellular

relationships. Teasing apart those relationships has helped Stamets come

up with some seemingly killer techniques. One aims to stop silt runoff

on logging roads, for example, by spreading bark and wood chips that

have been coated with mycelia of local native fungal species. The

mycelia's natural filtration properties stop the silt flow and prompt

the regrowth of the topsoil.

 

In another technique he calls "mycorestoration," Stamets uses fungi to

filter out pathogens, silt and chemicals from water (mycofiltration) and

to denature toxic wastes. The low-tech devices - which often involve

placing the fungi in straw, for example - can be placed around farms,

watersheds, factories and roads.

 

Stamets also uses fungi to hurry the natural decomposition of logs on

the forest floor. Knowing that local habitat better evolves when the

sequence of decomposition is sped up (rather than burned), Stamets

devised a way to put spores in chainsaw oil. The result: When a logger

cuts a tree, he also coats it with spores that help it decompose.

 

As proof of mushrooms' ability to mop up humanity's deadly mistakes,

Stamets tells of mushrooms growing near Chernobyl that were found to

have accumulated high levels of the deadly Cesium 137 that leaked from

faulty reactors. Why not put mushrooms near environmentally wrecked

sites, allowing them to work as a natural immune system?

 

Non-Polluting Pesticides

 

Stamets' key project - which has attracted the attention of Ben DuPont,

an investor from the famed family - is U.S. Patent number 6,660,290.

 

Somewhere during his study of the dialectic relationship between fungi

and insects, Stamets came up with a way to use one to kill the other.

"Mycopesticides," he says, are non-polluting tools that could upend the

global pesticide industry.

 

One version of the idea involves using parasitic fungi that act on

specific insects. The fungus, which can be presented on tasty foods like

grain, kills the pest when digested.

 

DuPont's company, Yet2.com, matches new technologies with bigger

business partners. Stamets, however, wouldn't discuss Yet2's plans for

his pesticides, saying only that the group is involved in talks with

major companies.

 

Mad Mycoscientist or Visionary?

 

Kind and undeniably brilliant, Stamets' passionate, rapid-fire

descriptions of fungal experiments and patents can give the feeling he's

a mix of scientist, inventor, environmentalist and snake-oil salesman.

He admits he has his detractors - "Some mycologists think I'm a

heretic." But he also has a loyal following.

 

"There are very few people capable of combining the breadth of

understanding and the academic rigor to naturally based problem

solutions than Paul," says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, formerly of the Defense

Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's high risk,

high-payoff scientific entity. "His combination of factors in his

intellect and experience are a somewhat rare combination. And his work

is likely to prove to have significant benefit to the United States."

 

(Though he would not discuss details, Stamets says he has isolated a

strain of mushroom from the Old Growth forest that has shown activity

against viruses that could be potentially weaponized.)

 

Dr. Donald Abrams, who is collaborating with Stamets on a National

Institutes of Health-funded trial to investigate the effects of the

oyster mushroom in lowering cholesterol in people taking HIV therapies,

concurs. The study is the first medical mushroom clinical study in the U.S.

 

"I think that Paul Stamets is a visionary thinker and a passionate

spokesperson for the Mushroom Kingdom," said Abrams, a researcher at the

University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. "I am always

engrossed in his articulate presentations of the power of mushrooms in

healing people and indeed the planet."

 

Phil Stern of Yet2 says that for all Stamets' scientific acumen, at the

end of the day, he's about his beliefs.

 

"One of the best things about Paul is not just his groundbreaking

technology but his principals," says Stern. "He says, 'If I license this

product to you, you have to uphold these principals.' I respect his

integrity."

 

Fungal Intelligence

 

Stamets has a few things working against him, especially when promoting

his ideas in the mental lockdown of 21st century America. He did, after

all, conduct now famous research on psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms

at Evergreen State College in the late 1970s. And he wrote "Psilocybin

Mushrooms of the World."

 

What's more, to conservative minds, the trippy-dippiness of some of his

ideas can come off as silliness. In one breath, for example, he ticks

off a riveting observation that neurological landscape looks like

mycelium or that brain neurons and the Internet share mycelia's basic

structural arrangements. In another he talks of "fungal intelligence" or

ability to use spores to put life on other planets.

 

In the draft of his new book, "Mycelium Running: Growing Mushrooms to

Heal People and Planet." Stamets writes that, "The mycelium is an

exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its

environment. I especially feel this when I enter a forest after a

rainfall. Interlacing mycelial membranes form, I believe, a complex

neuron-like web that acts as a fungal collective consciousness."

 

Whether or not corporate investors will ever vibe with the fungal

collective consciousness, Stamets says his ideas are helped by a shift

in scientific culture that's more accepting of non-western, natural

solutions to problems.

 

And he's never short of evidence to back his theories.

 

"The idea that a cellular organism demonstrates intelligence may seem

radical if not for work by researchers like Toshuyiki Nakagami,

published in Nature 2000," Stamets writes. "He placed a maze over the

nutrient agar filled Petri dish and introduced nutritious oat flakes at

the entrance and exit. He then inoculated the entrance with a culture of

the slime mold Physarum polycephallum under sterile conditions. It grew

through the maze and consistently chose the shortest route to the oat

flakes at the end. Rejecting dead-ends, the slime mold demonstrated,

according to the researchers, a form of intelligence."

 

That intelligence, according to Stamets, might one day be used to extend

life throughout the solar system. Mushrooms are the first organism to

restart an ecosystem after catastrophes like tornadoes or forest fires,

popping up from the ground to return nutrients back to the food chain.

The mushrooms' scent attracts insects which then attracts birds and

animals that bring in seeds, creating a life generation domino effect

that underscores the possibility of using fungi for creating habitats on

other worlds.

 

For now, his most secure convictions are planted here on Earth.

 

"I believe ecosystems are conscious," he says. "These mycelia networks,

like the Internet, share information on changes in the environment such

as the availability of new food sources or responses to cataclysmic

changes. So really these are information sharing networks. I think they

are microneurological networks and I think science will prove they have

a form of consciousness that we do not recognize."

 

 

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