Following the Mycelial Path to Discovery and Saving the World
by Carolyn Shea
Stamets has been a devoted acolyte, emissary, and evangelist of the fungi for more than four decades. Early on, he recognized that they were far more than forbidden fruits or culinary ingredients. To him, they and the mycelium—the hidden, subterranean networks of filaments—from which they spring (and which he’s dubbed “Earth’s natural Internet”) are powerful gifts of nature that hold the secrets to curing a multitude of medical and environmental ills. He’s made it his mission to not just uncover those secrets, but to dispatch the blindness and prejudices humans have toward mushrooms—what he calls “mycophobia”—that keep people from understanding how crucial these humble organisms underfoot are to our survival.
Stamets’ findings in the lab and the field have secured his reputation as a visionary scientist and proven that mushroom-based technologies can be deployed to solve an array of challenges, including cleaning up toxins and pollutants (mycoremediation), controlling insect pests (mycopesticides), restoring habitats (mycorestoration), and battling human health problems (mycomedicinals).
Over the course of his career, he’s been awarded nine patents—with several more pending—for unlocking and tapping a number of the beneficial properties of mushrooms. He’s discovered four new species—including one on Evergreen’s campus—and written dozens of scientific articles and six books, including definitive texts on psilocybin, or “magic,” mushrooms and on the cultivation, identification, and use of medicinal and gourmet specimens.
His latest treatise, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, describes the fungi’s applications for repairing and restoring health on both the personal and ecological levels. His 2008 TED Talk, “6 ways mushrooms can save the world,” conveyed this vision more broadly: It’s been viewed more than 2.5 million times since it was posted online.
Stamets is as passionate about mushrooms and mycelium today as he was as an Evergreen student in the 1970s. That’s when he plunged into the study of mycology with faculty member Michael Beug, identifying different species, marveling at their cells, teasing out their chemical properties, and documenting their magnified forms with the college’s scanning electron microscope. The latter, he said, “showed me the hidden world, that which was unseen. Having such a beautiful viewscape into the microscopic dimensions was incredibly tantalizing to me.”
The scientific investigations he’s pursued since leaving Evergreen have been funded in great part by the profits from Fungi Perfecti, the company he founded in Kamilche Point, Wash., soon after graduating with his Bachelor of Science degree. “I started with virtually no money,” he said. “I just followed my heart and my passion.”
Today, he and his wife, Dusty Yao, run the thriving business, which has 65 employees and produces gourmet mushrooms and mushroom-derived supplements on a 20-acre, USDA-certified organic farm compound dotted with growing houses, clean rooms, and research labs. It also offers educational seminars for mycophiles and sells mushroom growing kits and mushroom-related books.
The techniques Stamets has pioneered for cultivating edible and medicinal mushrooms and making them available to a wide audience—along with his books and other accomplishments—were recently recognized by the North American Mycological Association, which presented him with its 2013 Award for Contributions to Mycology.
It’s in Fungi Perfecti’s labs that Stamets, the company’s research director, is doing much of the work he’s driven to do. This is where his groundbreaking ideas are generated, through experiments aimed at finding fungal solutions for various problems, carried out with more than 500 mushroom species and strains he’s collected around the world.
In his work, he has sometimes teamed up with other organizations, including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to break down oil spills with oyster mushrooms, and the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Re- search Center to study a mushroom-based cancer treatment. At Bastyr, a clinical trial was held to examine the use of a derivative of turkey tail mushrooms—supplied by Stamets—in boosting the immune systems of breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. In a TEDMED talk Stamets gave in 2011, he told the story of his 83-year-old mother’s dramatic recovery from Stage 4 breast cancer after using the same turkey tail mushroom mycelium used in the trial, in combination with the chemotherapeutic drug herceptin. Now 88, she is cancer free.
With the world facing climate change and its sixth great extinction, Stamets believes that humanity’s greatest task is “understanding the language of nature” to forestall further destruction. He also believes that the threatened old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, which harbor many ancient fungi species, need to be protected as a matter of national defense. And he has hammered out a list of myco-strategies for protecting the planet that includes establishing community-based mushroom cultivation centers and genomic culture libraries to preserve the Earth’s fungal heritage for future generations, and using mushroom and mycelium to produce food and medicine, filter water of pathogens, and enhance agricultural practices.
By paying close attention to an area of the natural world that many people in modern history have ignored or scorned, Stamets has learned to understand what he calls “the language of nature of the fungal networks that communicate with an ecosystem.” Through exploration and ingenuity, he has recruited the fungal kingdom as allies in finding many restorative uses for mushrooms.
His work has earned him an honorary doctorate, awards, esteem, and most recently, a place in the inaugural class of AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, a group of seven “creators and discoverers, problem-solvers, and innovation drivers” selected by the world’s largest and most prestigious scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). During the yearlong appointment, through a series of lectures, he will help foster the understanding of the role scientists can play in helping society through invention, creating products, and building businesses. His talks, he said, will be a “bridge to bring science to the public.”
To Stamets, promoting the understanding of mushrooms’ healing powers is immensely important. “If I can help advance this knowledge,” he said, “I will have done my part to protect life on this planet.”
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