"Some people think I'm a mycological heretic, some people think I'm a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I'm crazy," says Paul Stamets of Shelton, Washington. The revolutionary heresy he practices is one based on mycotechnolgy—using mushrooms to do everything from fighting disease to cleaning up toxic waste, from regenerating damaged logging roads to combating feisty termites and carpenter ants. Author of several books on the medicinal, culinary, and environmental use of mushrooms and the recipient of the Collective Heritage Institute's 1998 Bioneers Award, Stamets uses his business, Fungi Perfecti, to explore how to tap into the power of the vast web of mycelial networks in our soil—a kind of "matrix" of fungal filaments that can grow as big as 20,000 acres. Among the oldest and largest biological entities on the planet, these webs of fungal cells (mycelia) make up "the essential wiring of the Gaian consciousness," says Stamets. They have an "inherent intelligence," an ability to "respond to natural disasters and sudden changes in the environment." In short, mycelia produce acids and enzymes that aid in decomposition by dismantling chains of hydrogen and carbon—these hydrocarbons are at the root of most petroleum products, pollutants, and pesticides. Several years ago, Stamets' had the opportunity to show off his shrooms. In an experiment with the Washington State Department of Transportation, he competed in a contest of sorts: he treated ten cubic yards of diesel-contaminated soil with spores from oyster mushrooms, while other researchers using chemical and biological agents treated their own plots of earth. The other technologies had little success after four weeks, but Stamets fungi were amazing: enormous mushrooms, some a foot in diameter, had covered the soil. When tested, the mushrooms had no traces of petroleum, and 95 percent of the hydrocarbons had been broken down. After 12 weeks the soil was deemed safe enough for the DOT to use for highway landscaping. Continuing research is showing that certain species of fungus can break down sarin and VX nerve gases, that fungal mats can filter out and digest E.coli, and that mushrooms may have a role to play in fighting HIV, to name just a few of Stamets' successes. The potential for this area of study is staggering: each of Stamets' discoveries have come from the study and cataloguing of some 50,000 species of mushrooms—a mere fraction of the estimated 6 million varieties on earth.
In the 160-page year-end "Big Ideas" issue of Adbusters, I wrote about the--ahem--mushrooming potential of fungi to do everything from clean up oil spills to cure fatal diseases. My unedited version:
at 8:40 AM