Interview with Paul Stamets, Mycologist
Interviewed by Dorion Sagan for Sputnik in 2002
Location: Telluride Mushroom Fest
How I became a mycologist was a series of events. Number one, as a kid, I was very, very shy. I was the youngest of five kids. So I constantly stared at the ground and I couldn’t stare people in the eye. So I was very shy and I found mushrooms. And I was told by my parents that puffballs, if the spore got in your eyes, they’ll blind you. So I have a twin brother, and being very competitive and war-like kids, we would pelt each other with puffballs all the time, trying to blind each other. So I found that mushrooms were pretty fascinating at a very young age. Then I moved out to Washington State and I found a lot more mushrooms on the ground. So that’s how that evolved. And then when I went into the woods, I met some of the best environmentalists. The environmentalists that I’ve met have been loggers. It seems like an oxymoron, but they introduced me to a lot of wild mushrooms and they were just as upset as anyone else would be if they’re steelhead streams were logged or if their chanterelle patches were obliterated. So, you know, the whole idea of demonizing the environmental movement by the logging industry has been more or less a media campaign that has been carefully orchestrated. You know, people don’t want their own backyards to be soured or spoiled and we all want to have the land, the property be better for our kids than it was when we first moved there. So, it always takes time.
Most cultures are mycophilic. It’s just the Irish/English are classically mycophobic. They have a fear of the decomposing, fetid, fruit-bodies of fungi and oftentimes associate them with death. Eastern cultures usually associate mushrooms with birth, and health, and recycling, and great symbiosis. Eastern Europeans have a very, very long, long history with the use of medicinal mushrooms. The French do, as well. And our early European ancestors, those of us who have European heritage, we use mushrooms like this one, similar. This one’s called Fomitopsis pinicola and there’s a species similar to this one called Fomes fomentarius which the iceman had and was essential for carrying fire when we were nomadic peoples before agriculture. In the winter time, if you couldn’t carry fire you’d die, so the use of these wood conks were incredibly important because you could hollow them out, pack embers of hot coals into them and keep fire alive for days, which allowed for migration…migrational activity from one cold temperate zone to another temperate zone. So again without fire, in the winters, in the Alps, you would die. So there’s a long history of the use of medicinal mushrooms. Even going back to Dioscorides when a similar species called Fomitopsis officials was used for fighting what is now known as tuberculosis, then know as coughing illnesses. So the use of these wood conks goes back thousands of years. And they were medically very, very significant.
Things are happening so fast now. What we do have in the United States, our strength I believe, is our multi-ethnicity. We have the influx of all this knowledge, little data points of knowledge and experiences and folkloric legends and things like that, many of which are based on fact. And because we have that infusion into the biological sciences, even in the field of mycology, it’s exploding right now. On Medline there’s over two hundred scientific publications on mushrooms and their non-medicinal properties in the past two years. I mean there is a pulse that is across the entire planet, looking at these higher fungi for novel medicines. Whereas lower fungi were carefully explored, the higher fungi, mushrooms, we thought to be food sources. The great Japanese phrase that when translated says this: It says, “The foods and medicines are of the same origin.” And I think that is really true. These are medicinal foods and we are what we eat. And we can greatly affect our health by incorporating a variety of medicinal mushrooms because they offer novel antibiotics, they patch up the immune system, they are antiarthritic, they lower cholesterol. There’s a report that came out, if you eat fifteen to twenty grams of dried oyster mushrooms per day for thirty days, you will lower your LDL (your bad cholesterol) by over thirty-five percent in one month. Because oyster mushrooms contain Lovastatin which is an FDA approved anti-cholesterol drug. And they’re present in these fungi in natural forms. So there are dozens and dozens of active constituents in these mushrooms.
There’s an article I published in Whole Earth Review called Earth’s Natural Internet. And the concept is one that came out of my staring in front of a scanning Electron microscope for ten years. And I looked at thousands of specimens and I was always amazed when I looked at the architecture of the mushroom mycelium. It was so perfectly designed. This led into a series of patents that I filed on mycofiltration. And then I began to realize that the ground is infused with mosaics of mycelial mats which intersperse and overlay one another, and there can be up to two to three hundred species of fungi under one Douglas fir tree and the host defense of the planet is dependent upon these fungal organisms. These giant, what I call, “neurological landscapes” because they’re sentient, they’re intelligent. When a tree falls, or a person chops wood, or even when you walk down a trail, you’re breaking sticks and you’re exposing this carbon source. And because of the competition of nature, these fungi leap out of the background, trying to recycle this. And so, because of the complexity of the fungal biome, we have an ability to repair ecosystems. The ecosystems here in the Northwest are imperiled but they’re relatively recent; in that an old growth forest, when it’s cut down, a second growth can come up reasonably good. Third growth, not quite as good. Fourth and Fifth growth, now you’re getting into trouble because the soil in the Cascades is getting very, very thin. I grew up in Ohio and the root wads grew equally as high as the tree. You know, here in the Northwest we have shallow root wads. They go down two or three feet and they’re lateral, just because the Cascades are such a young mountain range. But the fungi are decomposing this wood and they’re building soil. So the largest organism on the planet, there’s a honey mushroom from Oregon, is 2200 acres in size, 1665 football fields, averaged up to three feet. And this is 2400 years of age. It’s killed the old-growth forest four times over but every time that fungus kills a forest it builds soil which leads to increased biodiversity, which leads to increased sustainability and the ability to withstand sudden changes in the environment. So these fungi are tremendous biological allies for everybody in the ecological community, including ourselves. And if we impair the fungal genome, or we destroy that resource, we will be below some yet unknown determined threshold where we won’t be able to recover and there could be cataclysmic collapse that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to respond from.
We have a homepage at fungi.com. The areas of research that I’ve concentrated on in the past ten, twenty years has been on the mycomedicinal properties, the mycoremediation which is bioremediation using fungi which is the replacement of pesticides, chemical pesticides, using fungi, and now I’m into creating delivery systems. How do we deliver these fungi into the appropriate environments for the right purpose while having meaningful effect. So there’s the four areas of research that we’ve concentrated on. On the mycoremediation side, which is number two, mycofiltration using these mycelial matrices to catch alflow biologicals like E.coli from hog farms, chicken farms, cattle ranches, etceteras, we’re basically sheet composting. We’re making a compost pile that’s shallow, less than two feet high. You’re infusing it with a group of species which are target specific to the biological contaminant or the chemical waste contaminant that you’re trying to decompose or prevent from flowing from one upland source into a downland source where there could be a river estuary and lake, you know, a village, school ground, whatever. And so the good news is that we do have cross-specificity of biological and chemical toxins that match with different fungi. I worked with Battelle Laboratories for four or five years. They spent several hundred thousand dollars on testing my strains, my ideas and we’ve published probably about eighty or ninety pages, in a jury/peer reviewed journal so this information is accessible. So the mushroom mycelium breaks down this stuff. The brown stuff tends to be lignin and the whiter stuff tends to be cellulose and the fungi produce enzymes and acids external to the skeleton, the cellular skeleton, that breaks down lignin and cellulose. And in doing so the mushroom mycelium gets nutrition to put up a fruit body and this material is demolecularized from very, very large organic complexes into simple forms and it actually becomes soil. But every step in that decomposition pathway feeds lifecycles of insects, worms, bacteria, yeast, other fungi. So it’s an incredibly biodynamic process. It’s not linear in this sense. It’s totally three-dimensional with all sorts of circadian rhythms spinning off of a three-dimensional axis. So it’s infinitely complex. And it bifurcates on the path. The beauty of these fungi is they’re keystone species. You start them in the process and the downstream effect is ultimately soil but it leads to this ecological recovery. So I believe that these mycelial mats as ecological footprints, mycological footprints, in certain circumstances, we can take deserts and make large oases.
The mycelium by capillary action absorbs water and transports it and so, in environments where these mycelial mats are placed, all these other plants grow. And it has a lot higher moisture, the plants provide shade, and it leads to ecological recovery. A perfect example is right near here because it’s so dry, all of the droughts. One of my students put in a mushroom called Hypholoma capnoides, which we were eating here, and in fact your mother (referring to Lynn Margulis) actually had some and you had some too. It was kind of a Conocybe mushroom; not really high on the list of most mushroom field-guides. But that species, when we put in combination with ponderosa pine chips underneath ponderosa pine trees, the soil people came out to test the soil. Absolutely bone-dry everywhere. But where our Hypholoma capnoides mycelium was underneath the pine tree, when they did a moisture test, it was extremely high. It was like 60% to 50% moisture in a drought. Which shows you that mycelium has the ability to absorb and maintain a water bank. An irregular mycelium can dry off the point of flammability. You add water, it regrows. It’s natures perfect sponge on landmasses. So the mycoremediation then, because of the ligneous peroxidases, cellulases, acids and enzymes that are breaking down carbon/hydrogen bonds, well that’s hydrocarbons that are based on the same bond structure. And so we have this bizarre coincidence that oyster mushrooms can break down diesel and render it into a nontoxic form. And that work we also do with Battelle Laboratories and diesel contaminated soil, and we reduced it from 10,000 parts per million to less than 200 in about 12 weeks.
What I showed in my slideshow with these bunkers of soil, which was black, dirty, saturated soil, when they came to our inoculated birm four weeks later, pulled back the tarps, there was shrieks of laughter because the oyster mushrooms were 12 inches in diameter. The mycelium colonized the pile, changes color, that’s a big indicator, the solvent smell of the hydrocarbons totally disappeared. But more importantly, as the mushrooms matured they attract flies, the flies laid eggs, the larvae developed, birds came in to go after the larvae, they brought in seeds, wind blown seeds came in, and our pile became an oasis of life. The toxic waste pile became an oasis of life, a green birm. And it caused this downstream catalytic effect. And the soil was able to be put back on as landscaping soil on the freeway. So it was fully remediated down to levels where it could be used. And so you took toxic waste and turned it into an value-added soil product using fungi. Now it gets very involved.
One of the mushrooms we isolated from the old growth forest, dephosphorylated VX. And VX is a Sarin-like nerve agent. They hold in common this DMMP structure which has a phosphorous group. It’s really, really a tight bond and it’s very difficult and it’s very difficult to break down. And so the problem with these nerve gas agents is that they’re resident in the environment for decades. When one of these places is exposed, you cannot go in there again. So it is a death zone for years and years to come. And so, I didn’t know it, but my strains were being tested by the Defense Department and that my name showed up on a research paper on the destruction of CW and BW components. And I said, “what’s CW and BW?” And CW is chemical warfare, BW is biological warfare components. And some of my strains, two of which in particular had an extremely strong effect at the dephosphorization of VX, heretofore unprecedented. And, in fact, you could possibly lay down these mycelial mats with these fungi and break down the VX, turn it into usable farmland, and build soil at the same time. It’s a great, great idea. So this fungus was especially good at this and it was native to the old growth forests of Washington State. And so, I like now to make the statement that we should save our old growth forests as a matter of national security. If we can preserve our fungal genome, there’s probably hundreds of candidates that we have, and it’s similar to the advantage we received with the Navajo code talkers. We had them, the Germans and the Japanese couldn’t figure it out. You know, we have this fungal genome that’s intact; we should preserve it, we should study it very carefully, because it’s a national treasure. It’s part of our national heritage and I think it’s very important for that regard.
I have the trademark “Thinking Outside of the Box” for packaging materials. And my thinking outside of the box is that I’ve been growing mushroom mycelium on cardboard and noted the affection that mushroom mycelium has for corrugated cardboard. It loves the little grooves and channels, runs real fast. And lots of gardeners all over the world and in the Northwest use cardboard mulch to suppress weeds. So when you make your compost, your French mountain beds and things like that, you can pick all the weeds out which is really laborious, but if you do it early enough in the season or the previous fall, you mulch your beds with cardboard and suppress weed growth. So you don’t have to do as much work, so it makes a lot of sense. And pulling off these sheets of cardboard over the years, I’ve been amazed by the huge fans of mycelium and lots of wood chips are often added and organic debris from the compost pile from the previous season, yard clippings, etc. So I was involved in a Darpa event and I came up with an idea for helping the refugee community using corrugated cardboard and boxes infused with seeds of vegetables, native plants, spores or mycosal fungi. All garden plants have mycosal fungal associates. It helps the plants grow faster, helps it resist drought, prevents disease vectors; plant, fungal, as well as insect, from entering that zone and the plants just grow much, much faster. There’s great research. Four to ten times faster plant growth with microsa fungi. So I’ve combined microsa fungi, saforidic spores, seeds of vegetables into the little grooves of the cardboard and then I glue/laminate it. We are launching the LifeBox, where every cardboard box becomes an ecological footprint and the delivery system is already intact. UPS/Fedex, there’s no extra charge for weight. The delivery system’s already happening right throughout the world right now. This one cardboard company produced sixty million square meters of cardboard a week. That’s fifteen thousand acres a week and they have a one percent market share in this country. So that’s 1.5 million acres of cardboard a week being produced in this country. We can make it ecologically specific, culturally appropriate. You would have seasonally appropriate and culturally appropriate vegetables. They could be growing this in the refugee camps for seed stock or for food. It would reintegrate the family. It would get the kids excited about learning the techniques that were their fathers for growing the vegetables, etc. So the LifeBox, I think, is a fantastic idea and it’s practicable and applicable to hundreds and hundreds of applications.
I should say that I have licensed the rights to the mycopesticide patent to an investment group that I’m very happy with right now. I have a breakthrough patent that’s pending. Breakthrough patents are, what I’ve been told, “Alexander Graham Bell patents.” I saw something that nobody else saw. The patent has 455 claims, it’s 187 pages long. It can replace every chemical pesticide in the world and it can make more effective any other types of pesticides that are being generated. I’ve discovered a superhighway relationship of what we called attractants. I can attract insects to a point specific source like a big trap. And I can not only attract them with one group of compounds but I can then also have them spread an infection throughout the nest. A lot of these termite and carpenter ant nests, they are called “factory fortresses” because they have multiple layers of defense before you get to the queen. But the material, what I’ve discovered, is like a super-ambrosia fungal food and is presented to the queen and approved, and passes all the barriers of the fortress and then is unsuspectingly spread throughout the entire colony. And so all the little ants and soldiers and termites are actually spreading the infection unwittingly. Whereas with any other chemical, they would stop it, and they would sequester them and then kick them out of the nest. So the entire infection spreads throughout the colony and then two weeks later, “Poof!,” they’re all killed. So they don’t have the ability to adapt to this fungal infection until it’s way, way too late. But nature always finds a way. There will always be a few lone soldiers that will escape. But the fungi evolve faster than the insects because their lifecycles are spinning in days and insects are weeks or months.
Just look at the phrase “Thinking Outside the Box.” It’s a classic American phrase for innovation. People who are traditionalists are not people who think outside of the box, by definition. Non-traditionalists push the envelope. In my experience, over the years, a lot of these big picture concepts come to me under contemplative experiences, whether I’m meditating, whether after I’ve worked out heavily, sometimes driving down the road, other times when I’ve enjoyed psychoactive mushrooms. It’s no accident that Americans are the greatest software inventors in the world. It’s no accident that some of the greatest thinkers in the software industry love to use psychedelics. It also underscores a big problem that we have in our society; of course, psychedelics are not good for most people, probably 98% of the time. But the lesson from evolution is from the variation of the minority that we can end up in a situation and circumstances that have an evolutionary advantage. And so I think for thinkers and for mathematicians and software people, I think we can actually point our fingers and feel some things that we’ve had a direct benefit. This is out of the sixties and seventies generation.
(From a naturalistic, spiritual point of view, could one argue that intelligent mycelial networks are using human brains as kind of a jumping off point in order to redesign they’re environment?) That’s an extraordinary jump in logic but it has some credibility because insects are being utilized by fungi, plants are being utilized by fungi, we’re utilizing fungi, fungi are utilizing us. It’s one big complex game that we’re a part of. And when we start separating ourselves away from the ecosystem that gave us birth, we’re really showing a form of biological myopia. Super-narrow vision that we’re denying the reality of our own existence. So if these compounds open up the floodgates of the senses and bring these ideas…A very interesting question I asked last night, “Who have taken magic mushrooms, psilocybins, and have these really strong themes of the environment?” The environment being in peril, time is short, we’re part of this giant evolutionary process, we’re on this ball in the middle of space that’s extremely fragile. What is our role and responsibility? Where are we going? How can we help the planet? It’s in jeopardy. The people that raised their hands, they all raised their hands, and I asked a different permutation of that question. “How many people who have eaten magic mushrooms have not had this experience?” Not a single person raised their hand. Now, that shows that whether it’s happenstance or directed evolution, the experience of psilocybin leading to this environmental consciousness was uniquely shared by sixty or seventy people and not a single person who enjoyed those mushrooms did not have that experience. Now in terms of a data poll, what more do you need? It’s like a little mini clinical study saying, “Gosh, people who eat these mushrooms are really concerned about the environment.” Even people living in the city. So I think that shows that these mushrooms lead to broader philosophical thought and I think that they’re going to be extremely useful and are being used, proved their usefulness over time.
Given the act that we share a common ancestor with fungi, more than 460 million years ago, the fungi went the route of digesting its nutrients externally. We went the gastropod route of encircling our nutrients and building stomachs and then skins and shells. And fungi are only a single cell wide, the mycelium. We’re massive in comparison. But with that experiential database of 460 million years, why wouldn’t fungi become more aware and adaptive and responsive and intelligent about the resources and changes in the environment? The fact is, they are. This is why when you ask the difference between awareness and intelligence, you get into a very strange philosophical debate. Because intelligence is awareness of the environment and ability to predict change and react to it before it occurs. As we can see from the fungal experiments, the fungi seem to be exquisitely positioned in that same role. So I believe that the archetype of the structure of mushroom mycelium follows the archetype that we see in String Theory for the organization of the universe. And that these are just different orders of magnitude of the same archetype, the same model that’s being replicated in nature on every expanding sphere. So we saw the photographs of dark matter, very mycelial-like, neurons in the brain, very mycelial-like. The mushroom mycelium, to me, is a sentient, neurological
landscape. We may not have the language tools to be able to communicate with it. But the more I’ve given fungi my premise that fungi are intelligent, the more that fungi have revealed to me some breakthrough ideas. It seems so strange to be a human discovering that which nature has already discovered and then, “Oh great!,” you’re a smart person because you observed something that nature already discovered a long time ago. But that’s the peculiarity of the human ego; human intelligence.
Compost. Mulch. Get wood chips. Mulch around your property. Mulch along streams. The membrane of wood chips will be infused with mycelium and that will become a mycofiltration membrane. Don’t send your yard debris to a recycling center. Recycle it, in situ, on your property, build your soil. The mushroom mycelium will come in, the fungi will come in on their own. If you want to direct the path of species, we can do a lot towards that. There are great books. Most major cities have mycological societies, which I strongly encourage people to join. They’re an eclectic, sort of like a Mensa group; they’re a very, very strange eclectic group of people from all walks of life but they have this eclectic knowledge. And you meet this Italian who has been picking mushrooms for all of his life and he’ll tell you something that no mycologist or scientist has ever told you. You put that dot together with another dot and you have a synapse. That synaptic knowledge you find at these mycological society meetings. Most of those are listed on our homepage and my books and things like that.
There’s a mushroom called Clitocybe odora. By its name, “odora,” we find it 50 to a 100 feet away. It smells like anise. And you go through the woods and this anise smell is incredible because the mycelium’s outgassing. There’s a Matsutake, you can smell it before you find it. Because the mycelium, it has these aromatic “somethings” volatizing off and it’s wicking into the air. If you walk into the woods after a rain, that really sweet smell, that’s from fungal mycelium…outgassing sugars that are aromatically bound. And so you smell, “Oh, the woods smell so wonderful.” Well, it’s a mosaic of fragrances but much of it has a fungal component. Fungi and scents. The Stinkhorns attract flies; it smells like carrion, like dead flesh, and the flies are tricked and they come to it and they spread the spores. So there are many examples of fungi eliciting aromas, specifically getting the mushroom spores transferred to new environments using different vectors, different vehicles in transport. Pine-borne beetles, there are fungi that go onto trees and the beetles are mycophagous. Most insects are mycophagous which means they eat fungi. We know that bears are attracted to morels. Bears like chanterelles. Bears are competitors for us in the woods when we’re collecting wild mushrooms. This is why there’s a tremendous disconnect when religion, and Christianity in particular, postulated that humans were not mammals. That we’re not animals, absolute disregard of the most blatant scientific obvious fact that you can observe in nature. We are animals. If animals have sight specific attractions to fungi and fungi are using animals for spreading in the footprints of deer, marmots, buffalo, cattle, mushrooms that are specific to them and nowhere else. If the fungi have adapted to other mammals as vehicles, why wouldn’t they have also adapted to use humans? Enormous intellectual disconnect when humans decide, “Oh no, we’re different than a bear, we’re different than a deer, we’re different than an insect.” That’s a very pompous and scientifically bankrupt attitude that doesn’t lead to some of the novel discoveries that are all around us. We should acknowledge the intelligence of nature, nature as a giant petri dish of experimentation.