[permaculture] Shrooms: Permaculture Tool?

Saor Stetler saor at ycbtal.net
Wed Sep 1 17:24:37 EDT 2004

    Shrooms: Not Just For Salad Anymore

          By Kelly Hearn, AlterNet
          Posted on August 29, 2004, Printed on September 1, 2004

To lots of folks, a middle-aged man who says mushrooms can save the 
world falls into the category of turbo-freak. But to some 
environmentalists, scientists and major investors, Paul Stamets is the 
trippiest of profitable kings.

"Mushrooms restore health both on the personal and ecological level," 
says Stamets, mycologist and owner of Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned 
mushroom business in Shelton, Wash. "Mushrooms can heal people and the 

Stamets, a former logger turned scanning electron microscopist, is bent 
on showing that fungal mycelium and mushrooms (the actual mushroom is 
the fruit of the mycelium) are the cornerstone of several 
Earth-friendly, multi-billion dollar industries. To him, there's no end 
to what spores can do.

Collaborating with public and private agencies from Batelle Industries 
to the National Institutes of Health, Stamets is giving shrooms their 15 
minutes of fame, promoting them as antiviral and antibacterial agents, 
as well as key boosters to the human immune system.

Outside the body, Stamets says he has cloned mycelia and mushrooms that 
can kill pests, absorb radioactive material, filter toxic wastes and, 
according to an article in Jane's Defense Weekly, even degrade 
surrogates of deadly VX and sarin gas.

Stamets, who has collected over 250 strains of wild mushrooms, says that 
until now, they were largely ignored by environmentalists and 
scientists. He has filed for dozens of patents, he says, with more to 
follow. "Every failure is a cost of tuition of the education you have 
come to learn," he says, "You graduate to greater and greater techniques."

Survivors of Catastrophe

Mushrooms graduated through evolution to become acute survivors that 
recycle life after devastation. About 250 million years ago, after a 
massive extinction from a meteorite, Stamets says fungi inherited the 
Earth and "recycled the post-cataclysmic debris fields."

Today they are a keystone species spanning large swaths of land and 
secreting enzymes and acids that break down plant matter (which, lucky 
enough, has chemical bonds similar to contaminants like petroleum and 

"The 21st century will be the century of the biologist," Stamets says in 
nod to technologies that are exposing life's basic microcellular 
relationships. Teasing apart those relationships has helped Stamets come 
up with some seemingly killer techniques. One aims to stop silt runoff 
on logging roads, for example, by spreading bark and wood chips that 
have been coated with mycelia of local native fungal species. The 
mycelia's natural filtration properties stop the silt flow and prompt 
the regrowth of the topsoil.

In another technique he calls "mycorestoration," Stamets uses fungi to 
filter out pathogens, silt and chemicals from water (mycofiltration) and 
to denature toxic wastes. The low-tech devices - which often involve 
placing the fungi in straw, for example - can be placed around farms, 
watersheds, factories and roads.

Stamets also uses fungi to hurry the natural decomposition of logs on 
the forest floor. Knowing that local habitat better evolves when the 
sequence of decomposition is sped up (rather than burned), Stamets 
devised a way to put spores in chainsaw oil. The result: When a logger 
cuts a tree, he also coats it with spores that help it decompose.

As proof of mushrooms' ability to mop up humanity's deadly mistakes, 
Stamets tells of mushrooms growing near Chernobyl that were found to 
have accumulated high levels of the deadly Cesium 137 that leaked from 
faulty reactors. Why not put mushrooms near environmentally wrecked 
sites, allowing them to work as a natural immune system?

Non-Polluting Pesticides

Stamets' key project - which has attracted the attention of Ben DuPont, 
an investor from the famed family - is U.S. Patent number 6,660,290.

Somewhere during his study of the dialectic relationship between fungi 
and insects, Stamets came up with a way to use one to kill the other. 
"Mycopesticides," he says, are non-polluting tools that could upend the 
global pesticide industry.

One version of the idea involves using parasitic fungi that act on 
specific insects. The fungus, which can be presented on tasty foods like 
grain, kills the pest when digested.

DuPont's company, Yet2.com, matches new technologies with bigger 
business partners. Stamets, however, wouldn't discuss Yet2's plans for 
his pesticides, saying only that the group is involved in talks with 
major companies.

Mad Mycoscientist or Visionary?

Kind and undeniably brilliant, Stamets' passionate, rapid-fire 
descriptions of fungal experiments and patents can give the feeling he's 
a mix of scientist, inventor, environmentalist and snake-oil salesman. 
He admits he has his detractors - "Some mycologists think I'm a 
heretic." But he also has a loyal following.

"There are very few people capable of combining the breadth of 
understanding and the academic rigor to naturally based problem 
solutions than Paul," says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, formerly of the Defense 
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's high risk, 
high-payoff scientific entity. "His combination of factors in his 
intellect and experience are a somewhat rare combination. And his work 
is likely to prove to have significant benefit to the United States."

(Though he would not discuss details, Stamets says he has isolated a 
strain of mushroom from the Old Growth forest that has shown activity 
against viruses that could be potentially weaponized.)

Dr. Donald Abrams, who is collaborating with Stamets on a National 
Institutes of Health-funded trial to investigate the effects of the 
oyster mushroom in lowering cholesterol in people taking HIV therapies, 
concurs. The study is the first medical mushroom clinical study in the U.S.

"I think that Paul Stamets is a visionary thinker and a passionate 
spokesperson for the Mushroom Kingdom," said Abrams, a researcher at the 
University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. "I am always 
engrossed in his articulate presentations of the power of mushrooms in 
healing people and indeed the planet."

Phil Stern of Yet2 says that for all Stamets' scientific acumen, at the 
end of the day, he's about his beliefs.

"One of the best things about Paul is not just his groundbreaking 
technology but his principals," says Stern. "He says, 'If I license this 
product to you, you have to uphold these principals.' I respect his 

Fungal Intelligence

Stamets has a few things working against him, especially when promoting 
his ideas in the mental lockdown of 21st century America. He did, after 
all, conduct now famous research on psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms 
at Evergreen State College in the late 1970s. And he wrote "Psilocybin 
Mushrooms of the World."

What's more, to conservative minds, the trippy-dippiness of some of his 
ideas can come off as silliness. In one breath, for example, he ticks 
off a riveting observation that neurological landscape looks like 
mycelium or that brain neurons and the Internet share mycelia's basic 
structural arrangements. In another he talks of "fungal intelligence" or 
ability to use spores to put life on other planets.

In the draft of his new book, "Mycelium Running: Growing Mushrooms to 
Heal People and Planet." Stamets writes that, "The mycelium is an 
exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its 
environment. I especially feel this when I enter a forest after a 
rainfall. Interlacing mycelial membranes form, I believe, a complex 
neuron-like web that acts as a fungal collective consciousness."

Whether or not corporate investors will ever vibe with the fungal 
collective consciousness, Stamets says his ideas are helped by a shift 
in scientific culture that's more accepting of non-western, natural 
solutions to problems.

And he's never short of evidence to back his theories.

"The idea that a cellular organism demonstrates intelligence may seem 
radical if not for work by researchers like Toshuyiki Nakagami, 
published in Nature 2000," Stamets writes. "He placed a maze over the 
nutrient agar filled Petri dish and introduced nutritious oat flakes at 
the entrance and exit. He then inoculated the entrance with a culture of 
the slime mold Physarum polycephallum under sterile conditions. It grew 
through the maze and consistently chose the shortest route to the oat 
flakes at the end. Rejecting dead-ends, the slime mold demonstrated, 
according to the researchers, a form of intelligence."

That intelligence, according to Stamets, might one day be used to extend 
life throughout the solar system. Mushrooms are the first organism to 
restart an ecosystem after catastrophes like tornadoes or forest fires, 
popping up from the ground to return nutrients back to the food chain. 
The mushrooms' scent attracts insects which then attracts birds and 
animals that bring in seeds, creating a life generation domino effect 
that underscores the possibility of using fungi for creating habitats on 
other worlds.

For now, his most secure convictions are planted here on Earth.

"I believe ecosystems are conscious," he says. "These mycelia networks, 
like the Internet, share information on changes in the environment such 
as the availability of new food sources or responses to cataclysmic 
changes. So really these are information sharing networks. I think they 
are microneurological networks and I think science will prove they have 
a form of consciousness that we do not recognize."

          © 2004 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
          View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/19680/

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