If Robert Ballard is intense, Paul Stamets is on fire with his passion for fungi. He strides onto stage and announces, “I love a challenge and saving the earth is probably a good one.” He believes we’re in the sixth major extinction taking place on earth, and that if we took a vote of all species, they’d probably vote humans off the planet.
Stamets believes that we can solve major problems through figuring out how to coexist with fungus. He asks us to think about mycelium – it holds soil togehter, holding 30,000 times its mass. It’s a powerful tool for disassembly, turning material into humus and soil. And it mediates nutrient transfer between trees. He shows a picture of these old-growth forests – “on Sunday, this is where I go to church.”
A single cubic foot of earth contains more than eight miles of cell. Using electron microscopy, it’s possible to see the complex network-like structure. This mycelium inhales oxegyn and expels CO2. It can produce antibiotics to fight toxins. Stamets believes that these structures are basically “externalised stomachs and lungs”, possibly “extended neuroligical membranes.”
“Mycelium is earth’s natural internet” – it routes around breaks in the network to channel nutrients and information. “It’s sentient, it knows you are there. It leaps up in the aftermath of your footsteps to grab debris you leave behind.” He believes, “the earth invented the computer internet for its own purposes – to help us allocate resources to protect the biosphere.” Mushrooms may be our first species – he makes this argument based on their ability to sequester CO2 and exude oxalyic acid, which can crumble rock and reate soil. “Fungi on other planets is a foregone conclusion, at least in my mind.” A fungus is the largest organism on the planet – a huge net, just one cellwall thick, covering thousands of acres in Oregon. It can produce fruiting bodies so strong they can break through asphalt.
Stamets very quickly offers some amazing “solutions to save the world.” He’s experimented with breaking down hydrocarbon spills using oyster mushrooms. They’re capable of turning hydrocarbons into carbohydrates – complex sugars – and turn a stinking mass into a green berm. He’s commercialized this technology by putting spores into burlap sacks, which can be used in landscape restoration. “These are gateway species” – they can break down toxins and turn them into growing environments. One experiment demonstrates that theyc an reduce coliform bacteria by 10,000 times in less than a week.
Some of the fungi he’s studying with support from the Deparment of Homeland Security’s “bioshield” program prove to be highly effective against bacteria. One is incredibly effective agains the flu virus, thousands of times more effective than our best vaccines. “We should save old growth forests as a matter of national defense.”
When Stamets discoered that insects were pulling down his house, he began researching entamopathogenic fungi – fungi that kill insects. By tricking ants into eating despored fungus, he found a way to infect a carpenter ant colony with a toxic fungus. Ants took it to the queen, which killed off the population of carpenter ants, whose dead bodies ended up growing the new fungi.
Some of his most ambitious ideas include impregnating cardboard boxes with fungi and seeds, so that they can be turned into “life boxes”, capable of growing gardens of beans, onions and fungus. He believes he’ll be able to produce fungal sugars – econol – using mycelium as an intermedium, which will produce fuels from fungus far more efficiently than cellulotic ethanol.