Faced with bioterrorism, fuel shortages, and a warming planet, where should we turn for solutions: a) religion, b) technology, or c) fungus?
By John Weier
Illustration By Pedro Scassa
Bearded and burly, Paul Stamets searches the forest on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula like a bloodhound, peering under fallen trees and sniffing inquisitively at the air. The object of his quest is the Agarikon mushroom—so rare that it can take Stamets, who has spent more than 30 years researching fungi, weeks to locate just one. And when he does—by bushwhacking for hours through untrammeled wilderness until he finds the beehive-shaped mushroom growing on a log or hanging from a towering Douglas fir— it’s worth the effort, Stamets says. For the Agarikon is the Holy Grail in his crusade to prove that fungi can be used to treat health problems ranging from high blood pressure to cancer. And his vision doesn’t end there.
Stamets believes fungi can clean up fuel spills, provide a nontoxic (and more effective) alternative to insecticides, and be the source of a powerful new biofuel. Listen to him talk, and it’s tempting to dismiss the 53-year-old as just another wild-eyed devotee of natural solutions—especially when he describes the web of mycelia (thread-like tendrils beneath the forest floor that form the foundation underlying fungi) as being eerily similar to the structure of the universe and says mycelia form an intelligent network that can sense human footsteps. But one thing sets Stamets apart: many of his ideas have proven scientifically credible.
Stamets is best known as the owner of Fungi Perfecti, a booming mail-order business outside Olympia, Washington, that peddles everything from grow-your-own mushroom kits to mushroom-based dog biscuits. But he considers this a side job that gives him freedom to conduct serious research. Stamets developed an Agarikon strain that University of Illinois researchers say could treat tuberculosis. He has engineered a fungus that wipes out carpenter ants, has used fungi to remove pollution from streams, and has helped the Department of Defense investigate whether fungi can counteract biological weapons. It’s all part of his quest to harness mushrooms as a solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
1. Homeland Security
Two thousand years ago, a Greek pharmacist named Dioscorides described a mushroom that was highly effective in treating consumption. Stamets stumbled upon those first-century writings and began a personal mission to track down Fomitopsis officinalis, agarikon. The Agarikon mushroom is thought to be extinct in Europe and Asia but, fortuitously, still grows in isolated pockets of Stamets’s backyard, the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwestern United States. So far, Stamets has painstakingly located dozens of the mushrooms, established more than a dozen Agarikon strains, and sent hundreds of cultures to scientific labs—including several doing research as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Project BioShield.
Among other things, Project BioShield investigates drugs and compounds that could provide new treatments for tuberculosis, smallpox, and other viruses that could be weaponized. Of the thousands of compounds tested, only a tiny percentage have been effective enough to be approved for more comprehensive research, including animal testing. At least two of Stamets’s Agarikon strains have cleared that hurdle; scientists at the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, have shown that the extracts selectively attack cowpox and vaccinia viruses, which are closely related to the smallpox virus.
Researchers at the Institute for Tuberculosis Research at the University of Illinois, Chicago, got similar results when they placed Agarikon extract and tuberculosis samples in close quarters. The extract actually stopped the tubercle growth and, in separate tests, was shown to be harmless to mammal cells—an important indicator that it wouldn’t hurt people. For now, that’s happened only in a test tube, but institute director Scott Franzblau says researchers are working to identify the extract’s active compounds and understand exactly what makes the remedy tick. Until then, they won’t know how to compare it to other TB drugs or whether it will make an effective drug at all.
Stamets believes the Agarikon is only the beginning. He’s convinced that mushrooms can cure everything from avian flu to cancer. But to extend his research, Stamets needs to keep generating new extracts from an increasingly diverse array of fungi, which explains why his quest is entangled in another cause: preserving old-growth forests. With Agarikons already rare (it recently took Stamets’s team 20 trips into the forest to find just one), he believes habitat conservation should be a vital part of the effort to cure deadly diseases such as smallpox or bird flu. “We can make the argument that we should save the old-growth forests as a matter of national defense,” Stamets says.
2. A Cultivated Taste for Diesel
In the late 1990s, Stamets and researchers from Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, conducted an experiment to see whether mushrooms could clean up pollution. They grew oyster-mushroom mycelia on wood chips, then sprinkled the chips onto a pile of soil drenched in diesel and other petroleum waste. For comparison, they coated two similar piles with pollution-fighting enzymes and bacteria and used a fourth pile as a control. After leaving the mounds alone for six weeks, Stamets returned to find a result so profound that it led to what he calls “an epiphany of my life.”
“All the other piles were dead, dark, and stinky,” Stamets said in a recent lecture. “Our pile was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms.”
The remarkable transformation was spurred by a natural process that lets fungi consume even the most toxic pollutants. When certain fungi are introduced to a new patch of soil, they release a shower of digestive enzymes. After detecting which ones do the best job breaking down the soil compounds, the fungi mass-produce those enzymes.
To capitalize on this process, Stamets and Battelle’s Jack Word gave fungi petroleum products as their only food source. They then cloned the fungi that did the best job digesting the contaminants and used them in the soil test. The fungi flourished—and that was just the beginning. The mushroom spores attracted insects, which laid eggs that became larvae. The larvae attracted birds, which brought in seeds. Soon, plants were sprouting up across the previously polluted mound. “Our pile became an oasis of life,” Stamets said in his lecture.
Stamets has used similar methods to show that fungi can remove everything—from pesticides to nerve gas—from soil and water. For example, he developed a novel way to clean coliform bacteria from streams contaminated by cattle farms. He simply fills burlap bags with wood chips covered in mycelia, then stacks those bags in the streams. As the water filters through the bags, the mycelia release enzymes that digest the bacteria. According to one of Stamets’s patent applications, the method can reduce coliform bacteria by as much as 97 percent; in one test, the mushrooms reduced bacteria from 900 colonies per 100 milliliters of water to just 30 colonies per 100 milliliters.
Stamets now wants to make this natural process part of a national cleanup system. He envisions a network of “mycorestoration” hubs where mycelia are grown before being moved to contaminated land. For this to become reality, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government bodies would have to approve it as a standard cleanup practice. And that might be a tall order.
Word says public agencies have been skittish about fungal solutions since the late 1970s, when several highly publicized attempts to use white rot fungi to clean up contaminants ended in failure. “We have an uphill battle when we try to convince others that that process,” Word says.
3. Ants on ’Shrooms
When carpenter ants invaded Stamets’s home, he didn’t call Terminix. Instead, he went to his lab and engineered an insect-eradicating fungus.
His experiment rested on a long-known fact: certain fungi can infect and kill ants and termites. But, to protect their colonies, these insects have devised morbid ways of preventing fungal poisons from spreading. Ants, for example, will identify an infected individual, then decapitate it or isolate it in a side tunnel. Companies have tried for years to come up with fungal killers that subvert these defenses. Those efforts were largely unsuccessful—until Stamets developed an ingenious solution reminiscent of the Trojan horse.
Stamets developed a fungus that is not only deadly to ants but also waits to form spores. Since ants don’t see spores when they encounter the fungus, they don’t identify it as poison. Rather, they actually mistake it for food and carry it back to their queen. By the time the fungus sporulates, it’s too late to fend it off. The fungus has already spread throughout the colony’s ants.
Stamets has received several patents for the fungal pesticide and says just five grams of the stuff can wipe out a home infestation. Even better, he claims the nontoxic solution is harmless to humans. Still, Stamets has to work out a few kinks before the product can hit the mass market.
Roger Gold, professor of urban etymology at Texas A&M, points out that it’s hard to maintain unique fungal strains over long periods of time, which could make it hard to scale up production. Stamets will also need to navigate the EPA’s approval process, an enterprise that can cost millions of dollars. He says he’s had interest from investors who might foot the bill, but he admits that some of them become hesitant once they take a closer look. Ever the contrarian, Stamets interprets those doubts as reassurance that he’s on the right course. “The fact that there are people who say this will never work is proof I’m onto something unique and novel,” he says.
4. Mail Fertility
One of Stamets’s newest schemes would use mushrooms, plants, and the U.S. Postal Service to mitigate climate change. Stamets has developed a cardboard panel dubbed the “Life Box” that’s impregnated with seeds and spores. Once planted in the ground, the panels will give rise to urban forests that soak up CO2, Stamets predicts.
Each panel contains an assortment of tree or vegetable seeds, and mycelia are added to help the seeds flourish. (Many mycelia have symbiotic relationships with plants, providing them with nutrients and water. The plants return the favor by delivering shade and food.) Sized to fit in the bottom of a standard mailing package, the panels can easily be added to mail-order shipments; whenever someone orders a copy of Stamets’s book Mycelium Running, a panel is dropped into the shipping box.
Stamets envisions recipients running out to plant the panels in their yards, giving rise to trees. It might be optimistic to think all Life Box recipients will automatically stick the panels into the ground—people can be pretty picky about their landscaping—but Stamets thinks his invention has a bright future. He has already sent the panels to refugee camps, where they could sprout corn, beans, or other food crops, and he hopes big-name retailers will someday include panels with all their shipments. “We get all these cardboard boxes in the mail,” Stamets says. “Why not turn them into food or habitat?”
5. Fungus Fuel
If Stamets’s utopian solutions ever become reality, the world will face a problem far less appetizing than the ’shrooms themselves: mountains of stinky mushroom waste. That’s because mass-producing fungal extracts would require large-scale facilities to grow mycelia on wood chips and other organic matter. Once the enzymes and other beneficial compounds were harvested, thousands of tons of the organic matter would be left to rot, and this is where Stamets’s quirky vision completes its circle. He even has a plan for how to use what would be the smelly byproduct of his success: use it to solve the global energy crisis.
When fungal sugars are mixed with yeast and other active ingredients, they turn into “myconol”—a fuel no different from the ethanol now being blended with gasoline to power cars. Stamets is working to perfect the conversion process and estimates that it takes about 48 kilograms of mycelia-laced material to produce 3.5 liters of fuel. He says myconol will be his research facility’s sole fuel source within two years. As usual with Stamets, that’s just one small step toward an earth-changing goal: he also intends to sell myconol conversion kits on his Web site, building grass-roots support for a nationwide program to fuel everything from factories to cars—not with coal or oil, but with fungus. ❧
John Weier is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California.