When it comes to academic triumphs and laudatory honors it can be said that mycologist Paul Stamets has his fair share. Stamets has authored six books on mushrooms, holds over twenty patents, is a winner of the Collective Heritage Institute’s Bioneers Award. Today he also runs a facility that boasts twenty four laminar flow benches across four laboratories processing between 10-20 thousand kilos of mycelia each week. He has close to a thousand mycelium cultures growing at any given time and is renowned across the world for his view of fungi as the ‘grand molecular dissemblers of nature’. And so it was that the Biopharmaceutical Technology Center was pleased to host a lecture by Stamets almost two years ago with the promissory title: How Mushrooms Can Save the World.
Stamets describes himself in his youth as a hippie with a stuttering habit who could not look people in the eye. He also fondly recalls once telling his charismatic Christian mother that the forest is where he goes to church on Sundays. He spent many years as a microscopist at the Evergreen State College in Washington studying mushroom mycelia with the aid of an electron microscope. There he developed an intense passion for all things fungal even to the extent that he now occasionally appears in public sporting a hat made from Amadou– a fungus that, he boldly maintains, was essential for the portability of fire during man’s much-heralded migration out of Africa.
When it comes to mushrooms, Stamets’ most radical concept, and perhaps his most attractive one, draws on a human parallel. In fact he proposes that that organized networks of mycelia under our feet form the earth’s own ‘internet’ of sorts carrying antibiotics and enzymes as well as huge numbers of signaling chemicals across trillions and trillions of end branchings. In short, he sees our own Internet superhighway as a mere replica of a highly-successful system that already exists in nature’s own backyard. Perhaps surprisingly these networks are not confined to land habitats. Indeed aquatic underwater mushrooms have been discovered in the streams of southern Oregon and mycologists are now busily investigating how these hydrophiles survive and affect surrounding ecosystems.
Agarikon is yet another fungal species that gets mycologists such as Stamets visibly excited. Otherwise known as the ‘elixir of long life’, this impressively-sized fungus has been used for years as an effective treatment for respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and is now known to exhibit a very potent effect against the smallpox and flu viruses. There is strong evidence that the active anti-virals in Agarikon might also serve well in the present-day combat against H1N1 and H5N1. In fact so critical to human health are the medicinal properties of this remarkable organism that Stamets has embarked on his own mini-crusade to create the largest Agarikon genomic DNA library in the world.
On a more serious note, many environmentalists claim that today we are fully engaged in the biggest mass extinction event that our planet has ever known. Stamets is not one to shy away from sounding alarm bells and boldly adheres to the claim that 50% of all known species on our planet could become extinct over the next 100 years if swift action is not taken. His use of oyster mushroom mycelia to remove oil pollution is an outstanding example of how we might avert such a bleak endpoint. These saprophytic fungi are gateway species that break down toxic waste through the action of specialized enzymes and thereby allow damaged ecosystems to flourish and rebound. Oyster mushrooms have also been shown to have a dramatic effect on bacterial titers destroying coliform bacteria and Staphylococcus in contaminated waters.
The environmental resiliency of fungi has long fascinated mycologists, and future mycotechnologies might build on this salient property. While Prototaxites– a 30-foot long, 3-foot high mushroom that lived 350-420 million years ago stands as the archetypal giant fungus, the twenty two-hundred acre, one cell thick mycelium mat of Armillaria ostoyae (honey mushroom) now holds the record for the largest organism in the world. Thermo-resilient symbionts such as Curvularia confer a viral-dependent heat tolerance on many grasses allowing them to grow at elevated temperatures, as high as 104 F in some cases.
Fungi can be described as being parasitic, saprophytic, micorrhizal or endophytic in their modes of deriving nourishment. This so-called ‘mycological guild’ of complementary fungi is what gives rise to a healthy ecosystem. The interactivity of these fungi and other organisms is clearly visible in ant cultivars of the Lepiota mushroom which are used by thatch ants to stop a particularly aggressive parasitic fungus called Escovopsis from invading their nests. In a converse strategy, Metarhizium is a parasitic fungus that kills carpenter ants and is therefore finding application in the protection of buildings from these would-be aggressors. By using the non-sporulating stage of Metarhizium, Stamets has surpassed the carpenter ants’ own ability to keep the fungus at bay thereby providing him with an effective treatment against carpenter ant infestations.
Stamets makes a stunning claim regarding computer and fungal networks, noting how “we were destined to create the computer Internet at a time when the earth is in crisis”. But can mushrooms save the world? No doubt there is much that we can gain from having these fastidious organisms living in our countryside. But despite many mycotechnological advances, Stamets describes the current state of the mycology field as being under-respected, underappreciated and underfunded. Raising awareness of the potential benefits that mushrooms may bring to our daily lives is a key part of reversing such an underlying negativity. And on that count we owe a great deal to mycologists such a Stamets who spend their Sunday mornings out in the forest.