Shrooms: Not Just For Salad Anymore
By Kelly Hearn, AlterNet
Posted on August 29, 2004, Printed on September 1, 2004
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
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
"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?
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
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
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
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."
© 2004 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.