Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

by Paul Stamets

We all know that the Earth is in trouble. We have entered into the sixth major extinction on the planet. As we lose species, the rivets are popping like the rivets of an airplane and soon we will come to a level of catastrophic failure. We don’t know what is ahead, but I think we all sense that it is important that we do what we can to save this planet.

My wife and I spend a lot of time in the old-growth forests. We feel that going there is a very spiritual experience. I think the old-growth forest has a lot of potential that is not yet recognized.

We grow saprophytic mushrooms. The mushroom root, otherwise known as mycelium, is extremely interesting to me. What we do at our business—and what happens in nature—is we add mycelium to woodchips and ultimately soil is created. Mushrooms are the grand molecular dissemblers in nature. They are the soil magicians, and the end consequence of the decomposition of plant and animal forms is soil. Mushrooms are the interface organisms between life and death.

There are vast networks of mycelium everywhere in the ground. In one cubic inch of soil, there could be more than eight miles of these cells. I propose that a mycelium is sentient; it is intelligent; it knows you’re there. Because of the biodiversity of fungi in the ecosystem, when you break a stick or if you’re chopping wood, there is an amazing competition of different fungal populations that reach up and try to grab that new nutrition.

The mycelial networks are only one cell wall thick, but they are biofilters. These mycelial strands can hold more than 30,000 times their weight. They grip the soils, prevent erosion and hold water. They establish vast myco-communities for many other organisms. The mycelial network is in constant biomolecular communication with its ecosystem. And these fungi have evolved exquisitely complicated systems for reacting to catastrophia.

We conducted experiments in breaking down a diesel spill in Bellingham, Washington. There were four piles of contaminated soil. One pile was treated with bacteria. One was a control pile. One was treated with chemical enzymes. The other pile was treated with our oyster mushroom mycelium.

Our pile produced thousands of pounds of oyster mushrooms, which decontaminated the soil in eight weeks. The mycelium produced extra cellular metabolites that broke down the diesel oil. The mushrooms turn out to be perfectly edible, with no petroleum residues whatsoever. Some of them grew extremely large.

The other piles remained dark, stinky and lifeless, but our pile rebounded with life. The mushrooms sporulated. The spores attracted insects, which laid eggs. Birds came in to eat the larvae. They brought in seeds and plants started to grow. This experiment demonstrates that fungi as primary decomposers can be keystone species that lead to restoration and a proliferation of life in habitats otherwise hostile and lifeless.

Mushrooms have led me to a number of inventions, including a nontoxic insecticide. Metarhyzium is a unique group of mold fungi that targets termites and carpenter ants and many other insect species that damage crops and buildings. The pesticide industry has tried to use Metarhyzium spores to kill termites, but these insects aren’t stupid. They can smell the plague and they run away from it.

I thought there must be a better way and I ordered Metarhyzium cultures because we had carpenter ants in our house. I coaxed out the mycelium into a form in which the sporulation is delayed and I found a breakthrough: The very fungus that had repelled the insects after sporulation attracted them before it produced spores. Carpenter ants took pieces of mycelium I grew back into their nests, and two weeks later, they were gone. Our house was protected from reinvasion for four or five years.

The worker ants become little mushroom growers. They spread the mycelium throughout the nest and give it to the queen. After the mushroom produces spores, the ants get sickened with the mycelium and die.

I have received a breakthrough patent to use this form of Metarhyzium against carpenter ants, termites and fire ants. It’s active against any insect with a queen—100,000 to 200,000 species. This could totally revamp the pesticide industry.

Another mushroom I’m studying is Agarikon, Fomitopsis officinalis. It has a 2,000-year history of use in Europe, where it’s now extinct. Exclusive to the old-growth forests, it only grows in northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

I isolated many strains from this mushroom and submitted them to the U.S. Defense Department’s BioShield Program. Several of the strains I isolated from Fomitopsis officinalis proved to be active against pox viruses.

Smallpox knows no borders. People born after 1968 have no immunization against smallpox. This furthers the argument that we should save the old growth forests as a matter of national defense.

I believe every community should have mushroom cultivations centers. These places should be viewed as healing art centers. Mushrooms are integral for growing soil, food and medicines and for combating pollution. Nature is our ally. We all need to be empowered by using nature’s tools.

Excerpted from a plenary talk by Paul Stamets at the Bioneers 2006 Conference.

Watch and/or listen to Paul Stamets complete plenary presentation by visiting the Bioneers store. You can also purchase a Bioneers radio series program featuring the amazing work of Paul Stamets.

Paul Stamets is president of Fungi Perfecti and author of six books including Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.

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