Paul Stamets shares his extraordinary mycological journey with Wade Davis
A mycologist, medical researcher, and entrepreneur, Paul Stamets is considered an intellectual and industry leader in the study of fungi: habitat, medicinal use, and production. The author of six books, including Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Stamets is based in Olympia, Washington. More on his research can be found at: www.paulstamets.com.
A fellow of the Explorers Club and a recipient of its highest Honor, the Explorers Club Medal, Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and writer whose work has focused on indigenous cultures. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Serpent and the Rainbow; the Samuel Johnson prize-winning Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest; and the soon-to-be-released Magdalena: River of Dreams. He lives on Bowen Island in British Columbia. For more, visit: www.daviswade.com.
Wade Davis: Why is it that mushrooms provoke such strange responses in humans and how did you come to be so intimately involved with these extraordinary organisms?
paul Stamets: Well, I have been an explorer of the fungal kingdom for most of my life and I was always attracted to that which was forbidden—and mushrooms are strange, potent things that mysteriously pop out of the ground only to disappear in four or five days. Some mushrooms can feed you, some can kill you, some can heal you, and some can send you on a spiritual journey. It is only natural for humans to instinctively avoid that which is so potent and potentially life-threatening.
WD: It’s as if fungi hang in that liminal space between this world and another.
PS: It is sort of a stranger danger, right? You avoid that which you don’t understand, so it is safer. That means then that the eclectic knowledge of mushrooms and fungi has remained in the realm of the cognoscenti—shamans, mycologists, and people who are tuned into the natural world on an intimate level.
WD: The world seems to be divided between fungophiles and fungophobes.
PS: You are right. There is mycophobia or fungophobia and there is mycophilia and fungophilia. The meanings are obvious. But the irrational fear of fungi is born out of this fact that someone knew someone or heard of someone who ate a mushroom and died. And so it is safer from a survival point of view for many to avoid these organisms—mushrooms (and the mycelia they emerge from)—yet they are so integral to the very fabric of life.
Clearly, experimentation with fungi over time has paid off. We have about 2.5 million species of fungi and, of those, 150,000 to 200,000 are mushroom-forming fungi. And we have identified only about 14,000. But through trial and error, our ancestors discovered those mushrooms that were edible and those that were poisonous. Our ancestors have culled this down to about 200 species in general, about 50 specifically, and about 20 superstars in terms of prime edibility. That is a pretty good selection process.
WD: Why has it taken so long for us to understand something so fundamental as the contribution of mycelium to life on this planet?
PS: When you bring up the subject of mushrooms, it is truly the forbidden fruit in social and academic circles because of peoples’ knee-jerk reaction. You’ve heard the bad jokes about “being kept in the dark,” “being fed you know what,” and it speaks to the fact that they know so little about mushrooms, which are so fundamental to life. Fungi create soils. Soils create ecosystems. And we live in ecosystems. Perhaps more profoundly, we are descendant from fungi, which gave rise to animals with the emergence of a super kingdom of life known as Opisthokonta, some 650 million years ago. The mycelium externally digests nutrients, inhales oxygen, and exhales carbon dioxide. We also inhale oxygen and exhale CO2. This is one aspect that speaks to our closer evolutionary history to fungi than to any other kingdom.
WD: You mentioned, speaking in metaphor, that mushrooms are integral to the very fabric of life, but it’s worth noting that in a forest fungal mycelia quite literally are the fabric of life.
PS: Fungi are network-based organisms that have epigenetically figured out how to navigate ecosystems and transport microbiomes into habitats. These communities of microorganisms—nutrients and favorable bacteria that nourish ecosystems and, importantly, prevent the spread of pathogens—are delivered via a dense latticework of mycelial strands, each just a cell wall thick. These microbiome-transporting superhighways, which can extend some 500 to 1,000 kilometers beneath every footstep you take, are so pervasive they are dominating the ecosystem.
And we know now that these mycelial networks have a certain intelligence innate within them. They are able to vaccinate themselves against pathogens. This is why I like to say mycelium is the immune system of habitats. And it is from that ability to resist pathogens that we have gotten some of our best antibiotics: penicillin, for instance. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered that Penicillium chrysogenum potently inhibited many pathogenic bacteria. He was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for this in 1945. It was only after Mary Hunt, a laboratory technician at the USDA’s Northern Regional Research Laboratory, had isolated a super strain of Penicillium chrysogenum from a moldy cantaloupe she found at a local market that it was possible to commercialize the use of penicillin.
This discovery was a major factor in winning WWII because the Japanese and the Germans did not have it and the Allies—the Brits and the Americans—did. So valuable was this strain of Penicillium that the British scientists impregnated spores into the collars of their shirts so that if their laboratories were destroyed during the bombing of London, for instance, they could recover this valuable strain. Million of lives have been saved since then, which would have been otherwise lost to infections.
So this historical, mycological event speaks to the importance of mycodiversity of fungi in the ecosystem. Every strain of these organisms has a genetic skill set, talents to be exercised when needed to respond to ever-changing circumstances. So the mycodiversity, the complexity of fungi in the ecosystem, is absolutely critical.
WD: That extraordinary story of Fleming’s serendipitous discovery of penicillin, coming home from vacation as he did to his lab, only to notice that a common mold had contaminated his petri dishes and inhibited the normal growth of bacteria, surely suggests that other medical miracles await us among the many thousands of fungal species as yet unknown to science.
PS: Shamans and indigenous peoples will talk about spirits and diseases and of diseases being caused by agents in the spirit realm. Physicians might talk about microbes, viruses, and bacteria. What they have in common is that disease is caused by the seemingly invisible.
As we know, habitats have immune systems. We have immune systems. When we are in homeostasis, we are in an immune-ready state and able to withstand assaults on the human body because we have the ability to respond. And we know that certain mushrooms have the ability to enhance that response, being prebiotics. A prime example is the turkey tail mycelium (Trametes versicolor), which helps the beneficial microflora in your gut. And since ~80 percent of your immune response occurs in your gut, researchers found that turkey tail mycelium enhances Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus acidophilus, and restricts Staphylococcus, E. coli, and Clostridium, which are inflammatory bacteria.
Another is Agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis), which, with its near-human lifespan, is putatively the longest-living mushroom in the world. Like a tree, each ring of growth corresponds to a year. It is a polypore mushroom that grows exclusively in the old-growth forests of British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon, northern California, and in Europe. But it is also endangered. Last year it was placed on the IUCN’s Global Fungal Red List, threatened with extinction due to the cutting down of the old-growth forests in Europe and other environmental stresses.
In 65 ad, in his well-known work De Materia Medica, the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides described Agarikon as “elixirium ad longam vitam” (“the elixir of long life”), and noted its use as an anti-inflammatory and a treatment for respiratory diseases. The Haida, the Salish, and other First Coast peoples in British Columbia also discovered the mushroom’s powerful medicinal attributes. (You cannot eat Agarikon by chopping it up and sautéing it. It must be ground into powder and put into hot water.) The question is: Did these two cultures discover Agarikon independently or is its use myco-knowledge handed down from our common prehistoric ancestors?
What is interesting though is that we have found that Agarikon contains novel antituberculosis molecules known as chlorinated coumarins, which are a novel group of antibacterial compounds that are effective in fighting tuberculosis. And we have found very potent antiviral activity in this mushroom as well. So this continuum delightfully surprises me since so much of the folkloric knowledge is now being scientifically validated, which brings us to the potential use of Agarikon in dealing with the current Covid-19 crisis.
To be clear, we don’t think there is one antiviral molecule in Agarikon, and this polypore is not an antiviral drug. What this mushroom does is upgrade immunity, interleukins in particular. And what we have found with Agarikon that is most surprising is that it excites interleukin-10 and interleukin-1RA. Now why this is important is that these are cytokines that are anti-inflammatory. And a big concern with Covid-19 is setting off a cytokine storm. If you enhance the immune system, the concern is that you will have an overstimulation of the immune system and the human body begins to fight itself. What we have been able to show now–in two recently published peer-reviewed articles—is that these immunomodulators get your immune system at a more ready state to respond. So we can activate innate immunity without creating a cytokine storm. Hopefully this will be borne out clinically in the coming months.
WD: If there is one thing we should be learning in the midst of this Covid crisis is that we are biological beings on a living planet and we better get with it. And it is fascinating to think that a simple organism and a single thread of RNA has had this impact on all of humanity. You bring to light the interconnectedness of even the tiniest form of life with us all.
Here we are dealing with this virus and, while most people don’t even know what a virus is, you have been dealing with viruses all of your career, not only as it relates to Agarikon, but through the groundbreaking work you have been doing with bees and the realization that viruses are not only out there but that we are not the only ones succumbing to them. As the one person to quite possibly find a solution to the crash of macro-populations of bees around the globe, can you speak to what it means to take on a virus?
PS: To take on a virus is to fight an invisible enemy. The challenge is to outwit that enemy with a complex bioshield that races ahead of the virus’s ability to adapt in real time. This is the basis of adaptive immunity. Mushrooms work due to their complexity. They are like miniature pharmaceutical factories, whose skill sets are honed through millions of years of contact with pathogens to alert the immune system. We have found a few species whose skill sets match our current needs for survival. We have evolved a partnership with many rare mushrooms. I feel a deep obligation to protect their habitats, and implicitly them. Viral storms are originating from stressed ecosystems. We are all connected.
As with Agarikon, there is another polypore, a birch polypore known as Amadou (Fomes fomentarius), which also has a multi-thousand-year history of use, especially in Europe. It is a shelf fungus commonly found on birch trees. Being a “fire-starter” mushroom, it revolutionized the portability of fire, enabling our ancestors to migrate out of Africa and survive in Europe and beyond. Ötzi the Iceman, whose 5,300-year-old remains were discovered on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991, had a small pouch containing scraps of Amadou. And in the Napoleonic period, Amadou helped transform warfare, being used as the punk that was put into guns to ignite gunpowder.
What we also know is that centuries ago, beekeepers would use Amadou for smoking their bees—to calm them while tending to their hives or during honey collection. What we have since found from our research, which was published in Nature Scientific Reports, is that this mushroom helps bees drastically reduce the viruses that infect them. Extracts from the mycelium of this mushroom can reduce viruses that harm bees by 879:1 in just ten days with one treatment. We have also found that the Lake Sinai viruses (LSVs) can be reduced by 45,000:1 with yet another polypore mushroom that you are familiar with, Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum).
We all grew up with Winnie the Pooh, right? We all knew bees went into hollow logs and trees and that bees have been observed foraging on mushroom mycelium, suggesting they may be deriving medicinal or nutritional value from fungi. What we now know is that in Nature, bees have been getting immune benefit against viruses from mycelium in rotting wood. I now have patents in some 30 countries on this discovery. It is not for my ego. It speaks to the novelty of the discovery and to the fact that we understand so little about Nature, being essentially Neanderthals with nuclear weapons. I just happen to be a beekeeper and a mycologist and a keen observer of Nature.
WD: The world is led by politicians almost universally unschooled in biology, who set in motion industrial schemes that compromise natural habitats and corrode biodiversity before scientists even have a chance to catalogue creation, to understand the full dimensions of the biological realm that we inhabit. Hubris and ignorance walk hand in hand. I’ve always thought that any candidate for public office should be first asked in a political debate to recite the formula of photosynthesis—with failure implying immediate disqualification.
PS: Wade, you and I shared common history as loggers when we were young men. I set chokers for three years. I was a “riggin’ slinger” until three guys on my crew got killed. That is when I went back to college. And we both know when you cut down the trees and remove them, you rob the carbon from the forestlands. Logging takes the wood-food away from the mycelium so soils thin. Fungi make soils thick and deforestation reduces the carbon soil bank. As soils become thinner and thinner, forests enter into a state of premature decline. Trees topple over as their roots cannot uphold them in shallower soils. The ecosystem transforms from complex biodiversity to a state of monoculture. When we plant swaths of new trees in the same week and they all grow up as one generation, the forest loses the complexity and resilience of its natural state. Reinvesting in the complexity of forest ecosystems is the best way to reinvest in sustainability of our ecosystems.
WD: When I worked in the woods as a surveyor and engineer, forestry was less a science than an ideology conceived to validate the industrial extraction of timber, as we laid waste entire valleys of old-growth forests, trees the height of cathedrals. The very language of the discipline—sustained yield, decadent timber, over-mature timber, fall-down effect—was disingenuous, as if conceived to mislead. Yet, it was spoken by the professional foresters with unbridled confidence. Eliminating the old growth, and replacing it with tree farms, was the entire focus of industry and government. What this implied for soils and biodiversity was of little concern.
Today, thanks to the work of a new generation of scientists such as Suzanne Simard, we know that trees communicate chemically. A mother tree can deliberately, through mycelial connections, direct sugars and nutrients toward offspring of her own genetic identity and then to those of the same species, and then, in a tertiary way, to other denizens of the forest.
When I first heard Suzanne lecture at the Usona Institute at Madison, I practically started weeping, it was so amazing what she had to say.
PS: Suzanne Simard is a true warrior and a myco-warrior as we say because she was facing a lot of opposition in a male-dominated graduate program in forestry at the University of British Columbia. When I was writing my book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, one of her papers had just been published. What she discovered, as you mentioned, was that trees can budget nutrients via mycelial networks to adjacent trees—that “mother trees” actually have kin recognition and supply nutrients to trees born of their own cones. But in subsequent work, which she published in a paper with fellow researcher Kristina Arnebrant, there is an implication that is truly mind-blowing to me. By radioactively tagging carbon and nitrogen, they found that, in addition to mother trees supporting their offspring, the mycelium of the mycorrhizal fungi used to supply the nutrients would latticework their way through the forest to more sunlit areas along the river, where deciduous trees grew in order to engage in an exchange of nutrients. They found small hemlock trees growing on so-called nurse logs in areas of old-growth forest where there was seemingly insufficient light. They asked: “How can these small hemlock trees on a nurse log get enough light to photosynthesize?” So they took the saplings off the log and put them into a laboratory with the same amount of light of the old-growth forest, only to find that they withered and died. What they discovered is that the mycelium associated with deciduous trees would translocate nutrients from photosynthesis from sunlit areas to places deep in the relatively dark old-growth forest and give it to conifer trees, hemlocks. Now why would the mycelium do this? Is it that the mycelium has a mothering influence for the biodiversity of the ecosystem? What they found was that rather than being simply a nutrient flow from one mother tree, one conifer tree, to her kin, there was a biodirectional flow of nutrients throughout the forest to guarantee the plurality and the biodiversity of the ecosystem because it benefited the commons.
WD: The forest, we are learning, really is animate, a living community communicating through chemical signals rather than words, the flow of nutrients in place of the whispered messages of language. Every day it seems we discover worlds of wonder that we didn’t previously know existed. Science often acts in the spirit of hubris, but at its best it inspires humility.
ps: To your point, it has been long known that when lightning hits the prairies, mushrooms tend to show up—the process responsible for the fabled fairy rings in England. Lightning strikes will also bring out puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), which the Northern Plains First Nations use in their traditional medicine. And we have found that bursts of electricity will actually stimulate the mycelium to form mushrooms, which speaks volumes to the fact that these mycelial networks are sentient and listening. The same holds true for low-frequency sound. When reverberating throughout an ecosystem, it will stimulate mycelium to grow far faster than silence. So if we think about the drum circles of indigenous peoples, the drums produce sound waves that are echoing through the mycelial networks, causing the mycelia to grow and, as a result, more nutrients are being provided to the plants in the ecosystem and more food is being produced in the forest.
So what these indigenous peoples intuitively knew but they did not have the scientific language to explain, we are now beginning to authenticate, and that is profound. Think of the implications: if you are playing in a drum circle, singing the praises of Nature, the movement of the seasons, the birth of a child, or a celebration of community, the mycelial networks of the land are listening the whole time, and are responding with fruitful acknowledgment.
Wd: Scientists today are obliged to narrow their focus and embrace specialties, condemned always to know more and more about less and less. You exemplify the opposite—that kind of outlier who, because you are free of expectations, you are free to see the world with fresh eyes. And in that sense, you remind me of the great naturalists of the nineteenth century, not because you are rooted in old science but rather because you have the freedom to move effortlessly between disciplines, and elements of disciplines, to think in new ways. That is something that has always marked the really great scientists but has become increasingly rare as science has become ever more institutionalized.
And this is quite apropos to our conversation, in that The Explorers Club tends to celebrate individuals, men and women who defy orthodoxy, who see pessimism as an indulgence, who see despair as an insult to the imagination, and who are prepared to go out there on a limb, even if their theories are later proven to be false. Such was the case of Thor Heyerdahl, who looms large as one who dreamed big. And so, in my mind, you are very much a true explorer in that you kind of came into this from left field and now you are recognized as the most important advocate for the entire fungal world. What led you down this path of discovery?
ps: I have to give credit to two people for introducing me to the magical world of mushrooms—my older brother John, who studied chemistry at Yale, and Michael Beug, an environmental scientist who was one of my professors at Evergreen State College.
John had traveled to Mexico and South America and came back with these amazing stories of experimenting with “magic” mushrooms, which excited me—perhaps a bit too much. But that spurred my interest in altered states of consciousness—along with the writings of Andrew Weil.
For me, freedom is all about the freedom to have choices, and those choices should include the freedom of consciousness, which I believe is a basic human right. How could species exist for millions of years on Earth, only to be declared illegal by some European or American agency? That is so contrary to the natural world. So I have always thought it was absurd to ban the use of natural substances such as psilocybin, which has been shown to have societal benefit, based on data meta-mined from scientific studies on psychedelic use. One is that if your partner had one psychedelic experience in their lifetime, there is a significant reduction in partner-to-partner violence. That’s phenomenal. Another signal that came from the noise is that those people who had such experiences tended to be more in favor of the environment, more in favor of biodiversity, and anti-authoritarian. But the most extraordinary one is from a study of several hundred thousand inmates. If they had one experience with psychoactive substance, they were less likely to have been incarcerated for larceny and violent crime. So it does make people sit back and rethink about the priorities in life.
But my experiences with “magic” mushrooms really tuned me into how we are all interconnected. I realized then that we are only seeing a small, thin slice of reality, and while that focused, narrow view of reality may help us survive, we are missing out on so much of what is going on in the natural world. It is important to understand that everything in Nature is involved in crosstalk and yet we are deaf to it. The ego and hubris of humans is likely to be our downfall. And when we rob Nature without replenishing it, the withdrawals we have taken from it is a form of deficit spending that is ultimately unsustainable. Ecosystems will collapse and so will we.
As for Professor Beug, he never humiliated me or shamed me, even though I would say really dumb things. And so he taught me that comedy and optimism were fodder for exploring new ideas. That was the reward that I got. So oftentimes professors are threatened and want to show you that they are smarter. There is a lot of ego involved in academics, as you know, a lot of competition and one-upmanship.
WD: I think a great teacher is a catalyst of dreams. Those of us who have had great teachers are really fortunate. It is fascinating to hear you describe the genesis of your whole trajectory and your experience with these powerful psychoactive mushrooms. I remember when I was younger, hanging out with Andy Weil and Tim Plowman, and my mother would say, “Don’t take those things. You will never come back the same.” What she didn’t understand was, that was the whole point.
When you look at the sea change that came over our generation in society around this: women going from the kitchen to the board room, people of color from the woodshed to the White House, gay people going from the closet to the altar, and from a time when just getting people to stop throwing garbage out of a car window was considered an environmental victory to suddenly seeing scientific thinking in terms of Gaia. The one ingredient in the recipe of that great societal transformation seems to be expunged from the record is that many of us who have gone prostrate at the gates of awe have taken some sort of psychedelic. I didn’t feel the need to continue to experiment with these substances throughout my adult life. As Ram Dass famously put it, I got the message and hung up. But I’m happy to say that I wouldn’t write the way I write, think the way I think, treat women the way I do, connect to the natural world as I do, had I not taken psychedelics. And you, I suspect, might not be doing what you’re doing had you not had shared such experiences.
PS: You may be right, but Nature has made it easy for me as she gave me a map. That map is called mycelium.