The efforts by Paul Stamets
Jay Walljasper | November 2004 issue
The future of human civilization might increasingly be dependent upon the new technologies of “mycoremediation” and “mycofiltration.” If that sounds uncomfortably futuristic, or even frightening in a science fiction horror story sort of way, don’t worry. What we’re talking about here is mushrooms.
These terms refer to mushrooms’ newfound ability to break down toxic substances to harmless natural compounds. And it is why Paul Stamets, a former logger turned scientific researcher, believes these lowly fungi can keep us healthy, clean up environmental toxins safe, produce naturally safe pesticides, and even protect us from chemical weapons.
Stamets runs a small gourmet and medicinal mushroom business in the U.S. state of Washington, well-situated in the fungi-friendly dampness of the Olympic rainforest, and has written seminal books on the cultivation of mushrooms. But Stamets and his wife Dusty Yao have also built a state-of-the-art research facility where they work on contracts for such unlikely clients as the Pentagon, the University of Arizona Medical School, and the Washington state Department of Transportation.
No less a source than Jane’s Defence Weekly, the authoritative journal of military affairs, has reported upon Stamets’s experimental success in deploying mushrooms to neutralize deadly nerve gas agents like Sarin and VX. The mushrooms he used to accomplish this are native to old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, leading Stamets to propose, “ We should be saving our old-growth forests as a matter of national defense.”
In another surprising experiment, Washington state transportation officials commissioned Stamets to find ways to detoxify soil massively contaminated by diesel fuel. Setting oyster mushrooms loose on the site, Stamets was able to break down 95 percent of hydrocarbon waste in eight weeks, meeting requirements that the soil be deemed safe enough to use for highway landscaping.
Stamets, who has discovered two entirely new species of mushrooms, attributes mushrooms’ amazing powers to the fact that fungi are actually vast and intricate underground networks. The mushrooms we see that pop up in our backyard or the forest floor are only the “fruit” of an extensive fungal organism, called mycelium, that can cover as much as 2000 acres.
And like mushrooms themselves, Stamets’ groundbreaking research into the detoxifying properties of mushrooms may be only the tip of the fungi. Leading-edge pharmaceutical researchers are exploring fungi’s use in antiviral medications and, with the widespread problem of antibiotic resistance, in new strains of antibiotics. Stamets, meanwhile, is exploring one fungi’s potential to halt the spread of malaria. – JW
For more information: Fungi Perfecti, Box 7634, Olympia, WA 98507, USA, www.fungi.com.