Return of the Fungi

( Andy Isaacson, Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2009)
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<b><i>Paul Stamets is on a quest to find an endangered mushroom that could cure smallpox, TB, and even bird flu. Can he unlock its secrets before deforestation and climate change wipe it out?</i></b>

IN THE OLD-GROWTH forests of the Pacific Northwest grows a bulbous, prehistoric-looking mushroom called agarikon. It prefers to colonize century-old Douglas fir trees, growing out of their trunks like an ugly mole on a finger. When I first met Paul Stamets, a mycologist who has spent more than three decades hunting, studying, and tripping on mushrooms, he had found only two of these unusual fungi, each time by accident—or, as he might put it, divine intervention. . . . Stamets believes that unlocking agar i kon’s secrets may be as important to the future of human health as Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillium mold’s antibiotic properties more than 80 years ago. And so on a sunny July day, Stamets is setting off on a voyage along the coastal islands of southern British Columbia in hopes of bagging more of the endangered fungus before deforestation or climate change irreparably alters the ecosystems where it makes its home. Agarikon may be ready to save us—but we may have to save it first. . . . Stamets began distancing himself from the magic mushroom crowd about nine years ago. “The problem with the psychedelic scene,” he told me while driving near his vacation home on Cortes Island, the Grateful Dead playing on the stereo, “is that people contemplate their belly buttons and don’t get anything done. I wanted to save lives and the ecosystem.” Yet he still credits psilocybin with giving him a sense of purpose. . . . Insisting that he’s merely a “voice for the mycelium,” Stamets says he can’t really take credit for his discoveries about an extraordinarily diverse and evolutionarily successful kingdom that modern science has scarcely explored. Still, over the past four years, he has filed for twenty-two patents and received four. “I’m up against big bad pharma, and they will try to steal from us. I have no illusions about this,” he says. “Truly, it’s a David versus Goliath situation.” He asserts that after one of his public talks, in which he spoke about his discovery of a fungus that kills carpenter ants and termites by tricking them into eating it, he was approached by two retired pesticide industry executives. Convinced that their former employers would feel threatened by this relatively cheap, nontoxic pesticide, Stamets claims, they advised him to watch his back. . . . Fungi were among the first organisms to colonize land 1 billion years ago, long before plants. A visitor to the planet 420 million years ago would have encountered a landscape dominated by fungi such as prototaxites, a bizarre-looking, 30-foot-tall mushroom. Contemporary fungi may be more discreet, but they’re just as ubiquitous—and mysterious. Fewer than 7 percent of the estimated 1.5 million species have been cataloged. Mycologists have recently identified 1,200 species of mushrooms in just a few thousand square feet of Guyanese rainforest, half of them previously unknown to science. . . . As we walk, Stamets points out that the spongy feeling under our feet is a vast subterranean network of mycelium. Stamets refers to mycelium as “nature’s Internet,” a superhighway of information-sharing membranes that govern the flow of essential nutrients around an ecosystem. A honey mushroom mycelium that covers 2,200 acres in eastern Oregon is thought to be the world’s largest organism. When Stamets saw mycelium for the first time, growing like a spiderweb across a log, he brought it home and tacked it onto his bedroom wall. Mycelium’s labyrinthine tendrils prevent erosion, retain water, and break down dead plants into ingredients other organisms can use to make soil. Stamets likes to call fungi “soil magicians.”

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