Mighty Mushrooms

Paul Stamets says we"re all descended from mushrooms, and if that"s true, he"s one spore who hasn"t fallen too far from his fungus of origin. That"s a compliment, and anyone who reads his colorful 2005 book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press) will probably agree. Like the sentient networks of mushroom mycelium he champions for environmental remediation, natural pesticides and improved immune response in people, Stamets is on a mission to help save the world through his research, writing, teaching and company Fungi Perfecti, LLC, a source for all things fungus.

Mushroom man Paul Stamets holding a particularly fine specimen.© Paul Stamets

Mycelium is a network of threadlike cells of fungi that grows rapidly and with such purpose and explosive force it can break through asphalt, concrete, even granite in order to fulfill its primary function: delivering nutrients, water and information to its kin and for the benefit of other living creatures.There is evidence that mushrooms and their mycelia have been on the planet for 90 million years, meaning they predate the dinosaurs by millions of years. They were the first living things to migrate from water to land, Stamets believes, and their ancient evolutionary path has protected them from pathogens, extreme temperatures, lack of sunlight, oxygen and moisture so that they are naturally selected to survive almost anything. Some scientists have recently established a new "super kingdom" that brings man and mushroom under one taxonomic roof, Opisthokonta, supporting Stamets" theory of our common ancestry.

Like some 21st century myco-guru, Paul Stamets spreads the good word of the great potential of mushrooms through his writing, public speaking (not easy for someone who describes himself as "painfully shy") and by applying for patents on certain mushroom strains that could become the key ingredients in many useful household products in the near future. Stamets is considered one of the foremost authorities on mushrooms in the world, and his passion for his subject is inspiring. But he is not without his detractors. Some in the mushroom community have chastised him for securing multiple patents on novel, practical applications for certain fungal strains he created in his own lab. (He"s filed for 22 patents in the last three years and has been awarded one, with two pending, at this writing.) But if he"s bothered by those who question his motives, he doesn"t show it.

"In order to create a paradigm shift, you have to steer the ship," Stamets told the audience at LOHAS 10, the conference of Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability in Santa Monica in late April. "You can be an advisor, tell people great ideas and try to get them to do things, but in essence if you don"t control the intellectual property of your own ideas or that which could help other people, then you become subservient to other people"s interests."

He says he and his wife, Dusty, have invested $300,000 in researching the properties of the mushrooms he"s patented and he feels they are entitled to recoup that investment. Some of the research he"s conducted has already paid off, if not in dollars, certainly in credibility.

Mushrooms are "miniature pharmaceutical factories" that can help support healthy immune function in plants and animals, and have a record of thousands of years of traditional use in Eastern medicine. Two mushroom strains tested by the U.S. government for their potential to treat smallpox were shown to be highly effective against cowpox, a milder viral disease; one shows promise against West Nile virus. These particular mushrooms can only be found in the old growth forest, according to Stamets, prima facie evidence that preserving these forests is a matter of national security.

This preservation is also a matter of utmost urgency because of its untapped potential to literally save the planet and its inhabitants. "Habitats have immune systems, just like people. And in order to potentiate the host defense of the habitat"s immune systems, we have to invest in biodiversity," says Stamets. "So looking at the old growth forest now, the economic cost of a smallpox outbreak in the U.S. would be in the trillions, and that trivializes the lumber value in the old growth forests. It"s not a renewable resource, " he explains.

Dressed in a Patagonia pullover and comfortable shoes, it"s not hard to picture this ruggedly handsome 50-year-old dropping out of school 30 years ago and becoming
a lumberjack. "Some of the best environmentalists are loggers. They didn"t want their steelhead streams cut. They didn"t want some of their favorite forestlands cut. They had their jobs to do, but the logging industry demonized the environmentalists and used the spotted owl as their target. It was a dumb thing for the environmental community to elevate the spotted owl as their mascot. It just made all the lumberjacks have a lot more fun," says Stamets.

"This is the problem with polar opposites," he continues. "There"s a campaign to demonize the other side, a bunch of chatter and a cacophony of opinion. Most of us are in the middle, " he says.

If there"s room for a radical centrist approach in environmentalism, Stamets makes an awfully good spokesperson. His views are informed by his early experiences as a young lab rat, and he can articulate the case for conservation as well as anyone, using descriptions and anecdotes that are sometimes breathtaking.

A few years ago, the Department of Ecology in Bellingham, Washington levied fines against the Department of Transportation for a toxic waste site, where 50 years worth of diesel fuels had contaminated the soil—20,000 parts per million of hydrocarbons. Under a contract with Battelle Labs, Stamets inoculated one area with mushroom mycelium, and the remaining areas were treated with either chemical cleaners or bacteria. One area was left untreated as a control. After five weeks, the untreated pile still stank and oozed, as did the areas with the chemical or bacterial treatments. The myceliated area, illustrated by a beautiful color photo during Paul"s talk at LOHAS, showed that enormous oyster mushrooms had sprung to life (sucking up the toxins like so much Miracle Grow), as had flowers and grasses. The mushroom-treated pile was reduced to less than 200 parts per million of hydrocarbons in under eight weeks.

Stamets and team achieved remarkable clean-up results after sowing toxic waste with fungus.© Susan Thomas

An even grander idea, one for which Stamets owns a patent, is to use mushrooms as a natural pesticide. It works. Stamets points to a photo of a mummified ant with a mushroom growing out of its head. Is it any wonder this man can engage an audience of jaded eco-freaks?

But wait, there"s more! Take a look at mycelium, the "Earth"s natural Internet," carrying information and nutrients for miles and miles to other living creatures. Now look at the World Wide Web. And the neural networks inside the body, then look at galaxies, and the cobwebs of dark matter. These are insights that have come to Stamets without the aid of the "other kind" of mushrooms, and though he did write a book years ago on psilocybin and other hallucinogens, he doesn"t recommend them to anyone. Who needs it, when just the facts about garden-variety mushrooms are so mind-blowing?

"A single strand of mushroom mycelium can hold 30,000 times its weight in water and soil, so mycelium prevents erosion, and as it honeycombs the soil, microcavities form

that become water pockets and reservoirs. It slowly releases water over time. And as we all know, water breeds life. So these microcosms become universes of myriads of organisms. Mycelium is the construct of the food chain," Stamets explains.

Perhaps the man"s most intriguing and practical invention to date is the Life Box. Here"s how it works. Say you order a pair of Timberlands online. Under shipping options, you can check "plain old brown box" or pay an extra dollar or two and get them shipped in a Life Box. You order the Life Box and your shoes arrive. Instead of recycling the box, you toss it into the backyard, water it, and boom, you"ve got a garden. Depending on your zip code, you"re growing corn, beans and squash, or grassland plants, old growth forests, you name it. He even thought of shipping them to refugees after his initial test box yielded 30,000 seeds, enough to start a small farm!

Paul says he came up with this idea one morning in the period between sleep and wakefulness, that time when the mind is still in the dream state, when he believes we are still connected to a higher consciousness. He tested the idea by embedding seeds and mycelium into the corrugated lining of cardboard boxes, then used his marketing brain to figure out how to create a demand for it, by leveraging the existing matrix of shipping options for mail order deliveries.

He sees the Life Box as a means to "combat global warming, teach our kids about sustainability, and re-green the planet." And yes, he"s filed a patent for this idea, too.

Paul Stamets is living proof that taking a break from college to "find yourself" can be a very successful strategy. He is happily married to his soulmate, his work is his joy, and although he believes his brother is the real genius in the family, Paul appears to have carved out a place for himself in history by devoting his life and all of his resources to protecting, promoting and producing new strains of mushrooms that just might save the Earth.

JEANNE RINGE has worked as a journalist and business consultant for many years. She was Larry King’s first producer, produced Face the Nation and several documentaries, and has written for a range of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and Yogi Times. Her website is www.ringeringe.com. She does not do business with Paul Stamets or Fungi Perfecti.

Contact: Fungi Perfecti, LLC, (800)780-9126, www.fungi.com.

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