When it comes to academic triumphs and laudatory honors it can be said that mycologist Paul Stamets has his fair share. Stamets has authored six books on mushrooms, holds over twenty patents, is a winner of the Collective Heritage Institute’s Bioneers Award and owns a wholesale business selling alternative medicines. Today he also runs a facility that boasts twenty four laminar flow benches across four laboratories processing between 10-20 thousand kilos of mycelia each week. He has close to a thousand mycelium cultures growing at any given time and is renowned across the world for his view of fungi as the ‘grand molecular dissemblers of nature’.
Stamets describes himself in his youth as a hippy with a stuttering habit who could not look people in the eye. He also fondly recalls once telling his charismatic Christian mother that the forest is where he goes to church on Sundays. He spent many years as a microscopist at the Evergreen State College in Washington studying mushroom mycelia with the aid of an electron microscope. There he developed an intense passion for all things fungal even to the extent that he now occasionally appears in public sporting a hat made from Amadou– a fungus that, he boldly maintains, was essential for the portability of fire during man’s much-heralded migration out of Africa.
When it comes to mushrooms, Stamets’ most radical concept, and perhaps his most attractive one, draws on a human parallel. In fact he proposes that that organized networks of mycelia under our feet form the earth’s own ‘internet’ of sorts carrying antibiotics and enzymes as well as huge numbers of signaling chemicals across trillions and trillions of end branchings. In short, he sees our own Internet superhighway as a mere replica of a highly-successful system that already exists in nature’s own backyard. Perhaps surprisingly these networks are not confined to land habitats. Indeed aquatic underwater mushrooms have been discovered in the streams of southern Oregon and mycologists are now busily investigating how these hydrophiles survive and affect surrounding ecosystems.
Agarikon is yet another fungal species that gets mycologists such as Stamets visibly excited. Otherwise known as the ‘elixir of long life’, this impressively-sized fungus has been used for years as an effective treatment for respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and is now known to exhibit a very potent effect against the smallpox and flu viruses. There is strong evidence that the active anti-virals in Agarikon might also serve well in the present-day combat against H1N1 and H5N1. In fact so critical to human health are the medicinal properties of this remarkable organism that Stamets has embarked on his own mini-crusade to create the largest Agarikon genomic DNA library in the world.
On a more serious note, many environmentalists claim that today we are fully engaged in the biggest mass extinction event that our planet has ever known. Stamets is not one to shy away from sounding alarm bells and boldly adheres to the claim that 50% of all known species on our planet could become extinct over the next 100 years if swift action is not taken. His use of oyster mushroom mycelia to remove oil pollution is an outstanding example of how we might avert such a bleak endpoint. These saprophytic fungi are gateway species that break down toxic waste through the action of specialized enzymes and thereby allow damaged ecosystems to flourish and rebound. Oyster mushrooms have also been shown to have a dramatic effect on bacterial titers destroying coliform bacteria and Staphylococcus in contaminated waters.
The environmental resiliency of fungi has long fascinated mycologists, and future mycotechnologies might build on this salient property. While Prototaxites– a 30-foot long, 3-foot high mushroom that lived 350-420 million years ago stands as the archetypal giant fungus, the twenty two-hundred acre, one cell thick mycelium mat of Armillaria ostoyae (honey mushroom) now holds the record for the largest organism in the world. Thermo-resilient symbionts such as Curvularia confer a viral-dependent heat tolerance on many grasses allowing them to grow at elevated temperatures, as high as 104 F in some cases.
Fungi can be described as being parasitic, saprophytic, micorrhizal or endophytic in their mode of deriving nourishment. This so-called ‘mycological guild’ of complementary fungi is what gives rise to a healthy ecosystem. The interactivity of these fungi and other organisms is clearly visible in ant cultivars of the Lepiota mushroom which are used by thatch ants to stop a particularly aggressive parasitic fungus called Escovopsis from invading their nests. In a converse strategy, Metarhizium is a parasitic fungus that kills carpenter ants and is therefore finding application in the protection of buildings from these would-be aggressors. By using the non-sporulating stage of Metarhizium, Stamets has surpassed the carpenter ants’ own ability to keep the fungus at bay thereby providing him with an effective treatment against carpenter ant infestations.
Despite such mycotechnological advances, Stamets describes the current state of the field as being under-respected, underappreciated and underfunded. Most importantly he remains steadfastly focused on restoring ecosystems for the enjoyment of generations to come. For those of us actively involved in the evolution/ID debate, Stamets’ findings are likewise poignantly relevant. In fact he makes a stunning claim regarding computer and fungal networks. According to Stamets we were destined to create the computer Internet at precisely the time when the earth is in crisis.
That our understanding of network theory and its importance in fungal bioremediation should coincide with our earth’s need for ecological intervention introduces a teleological, purposeful perspective to life that contradicts the contingency of orthodox Darwinism. After all a cosmos that is fashioned towards such an endpoint is incompatible with the random, directionless tenet of natural selection. For the Christian faithful there is one proclamation that makes sense in our current predicament: Thank God that the forests are where mycologists choose to go to church on Sundays!
For further details on Stamets’ work, see How Mushrooms Can Save The World at http://tiny.cc/iecmw, (Login: Promega; Password: mushroom)