Paul Stamets with an Agarikon fungus which is crucial to his work and research
CASE STUDY: how mushrooms can save forests
21st October, 2009
The potential of fungi for medicine, filtering polluted water, controlling pests and even biofuels, is truly staggering
To Paul, mushrooms are 'nature's internet'
Paul Stamets sends his greetings from Cortes Island, British Columbia, 'where we have a small cabin and where our Mycoforestry Research Land is.'
This beautiful island has become a massive outdoor laboratory, where Paul gathers the data for his radical research. He describes it all as a 'multi-lifetime-long experiment.'
Paul's major book Mycelium Running is a remarkable thing - part scientific investigation, part handbook, part love-letter to the fungal world - and fundamental reading for those who seek further understanding.
Paul knows fungi and the forest like few others, although he started off on a different forestry track. Now admired for his groundbreaking work on mycology - the study of fungi - he was once employed as a logger in his beloved old-growth forest of the USA's Pacific north west.
This close relationship with trees became more constructive when he decided to study botany, then proceeded to specialize in mycology. But it was while working in these forests that he had his first epiphany regarding the importance of fungi.
'When I logged the old growth trees, I was astonished at how shallow but broad the root wads were (3 ft. deep, 30 ft. across),' he said. 'Three forests could be cut from the same land in 100 years, exporting tons of carbon, from soils made in only 10,000 years, but forest ecosystems could not support such an exodus of nutrients. I knew fungi created soils, and sensed that the interconnections were much more dynamic than met the eye.'
These interconnections are mostly concealed underground. Intricate mycelial membranes - mycelia being basic strands of fungus - permeate every inch of forest soil (a cubic inch can contain up to eight miles-worth).
Mushrooms are often thought to be little more than parasites which cause illness and destruction in plants. But their role is far more subtle, complex and varied. They are crucial to ecosystems, breaking down matter and recycling nutrients. In Paul's words: 'Fungi are the interface of organisms between life and death - without them, all ecosystems would fail.' Neither forests nor fungi could exist without the other.
Mycorrhizal fungi are some of the most important. These species engage directly with plants, entering or surrounding their roots (myco = of fungi, rhizal = to do with roots), thereby greatly extending the surface area with which they can draw up nutrients. Many plants simply cannot germinate without the right mix of mycorrhizals and bacteria.
Trees that have grown with a mycorrhizal relationship tend to be bigger, stronger and more resistant to disease. Paul explains, 'When engaging fungal allies plants benefit in three ways - complementary mycological systems help plants survive starvation, dehydration and parasitization.' His team's work on mycoforestry is dedicated to new, nature-based approaches that preserve the forests as guardians against climate change.
Paul's Six Ways Mushrooms can Save the World
Mycoremediation: healing of damaged ecosystems through the introduction of specialist fungi able to break down toxins, rebuild soil and repair the subtle balance of nature. Paul and his team are making staggering discoveries in this field.
Mycofiltration: the cleansing of polluted and disease-ridden watercourses by using mycelial mats to soak up infections and poisons. Another use is to help prevent erosion. Mats of mycelium can knit together soils, as well as making them more appealing places for plants to grow. This low-maintenance, cement-free method to shore up roadsides and bolster areas prone to flooding are proving extremely effective in trials.
Mycomedecines: development of powerful and as-yet untapped antibiotics, potentially highly active against a wide range of viruses and biological warfare agents.
Mycopesticides: a chemical-free alternative to controlling damaging insect species.
Myconol: A potential source of ecologically-sound biofuel exists in the form of Myconol (an extremely useful side-product of other culturing processes).
Mycoforestry: mushrooms are forest guardians. All these factors give one of the strongest cases for preservation of the world's forests in the face of our changing climate. Forests are the heartlands of mushrooms, and mushrooms may well be ever-more crucial to our survival and the health of the biosphere.
There is another reason why Paul feels compelled to harness the power of fungi to protect the biosphere. 'When I experimented with psilocybin mushrooms, I always got the same theme, a calling out from the Earth: Don't you see? We are all One. Protect the Earth and her children. The time is now to act. Wake up. Species have voices we must listen to.'
This deeply affected him and still does to this day. He felt the cultural lenses of 'ecological blindness' were removed by these experiences and that we were 'embedded within a living fabric of cells that interconnected us all.'
Not only are fungi the largest single organisms on earth, they are also some of our greatest communicators. To Paul, mushrooms are 'nature's internet.' He likens the complex interlinking of mycelial networks to cells in the human brain, the spread of dark matter throughout the cosmos, and the World Wide Web itself.
He sees these fungal networks as sentient, aware of ambient changes such as trees falling, the movement of creatures (including humans of course) around the forest as they feed, defecate, die.
Fungi also provide forests with a nervous system, an immune system, and an underground communications network - simultaneously looking after the health and longevity of their own species and the ecosystem as a whole. Fungi act quickly, growing fast and altering their environment in a very short space of time.
Paul set up his business Fungi Perfecti (www.fungi.com), supplying gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, in the early 1980s. Meanwhile he's been researching mycological solutions to some of the greatest challenges that face us today. These include ecosystem detoxification, mycoforestry, pest control and food production. At this moment some of his most edgy and exciting work is in the field of antiviral medicine.
'Our team has isolated a two-molecule complex more than twelve times more potent than cidofovir medication against pox viruses, with much less toxicity,' he says. 'We believe we have found a new antiviral medicine. This is a continuation of my decade long efforts of culturing rare fungi from the old-growth forest.'
There are many common pathogens which affect both humans and mushrooms. For this reason the medicinal properties of fungi are of serious interest to scientists and medics. Paul has teamed up with some US universities to test these capabilities, and holds many patents on mushroom-based compounds.
Currently he has twenty six strains of Fomitopsis officinalis in his culture collection - by far the largest reservoir of in vitro strains in the world. 'We know that some are much more potent than others, so, as in the story of Penicillin, we are on the path to finding hyperproducers. We have evidence that this fungus is dually active against DNA (pox, herpes) and RNA (flu) viruses. The anti-tubercular, anti-E.coli, and anti-staph effects are also being explored.'
Other work is taking on Malaria and Aids. Considering this science is in the early stages, it's clear that preserving mycodiversity is very important, and this can only be preserved if the forests are too.
Save mushrooms, save the world
It's almost as if written into the DNA sequence of mushrooms is the very code that can save the world - if we can decipher it in time.
The Agarikon fungus is already thought to be extinct in Europe and Asia, and is extremely rare in the Americas. This is just one species, one clutch of possibilities. The untold potential of fungi provides a hugely forceful argument for preserving the old-growth forests. And in turn their preservation is part of a defence against climate change.
Paul works alongside indigenous groups as well as national institutions. 'One shaman gave me the greatest compliment: "Paul Stamets gets it. He listens to nature."'
It's his ability to see the bigger, global picture while retaining his acute attention to detail and local needs that makes what Paul does so essential. For instance, he advocates the use of 'spored oil' in logging projects. This oil, infused with carefully selected fungal spores, will get into stumps and give mushrooms a major head start in moving on the ecosystem after trauma.
Certainly, his radical and experimental approach to working with nature (carried out by like-minded friends and family) is sometimes seen as controversial. But perhaps it is the only kind of approach that will match up to the urgency of the problems that beset us.
Paul combines scientific knowledge of forests and fungi with an entrepreneur's eloquence and verve. And there is always a weather eye on the vastnesses of climate change, extinction and pandemics.
'I think we are all, now, an evolutionary success, but for how long is debatable,' Paul warns. 'Nature may reject us if we do not ally ourselves with the microbial world, quickly and intelligently.'
David Hawkins is a freelance journalist
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