Paul Stamets, an American mycologist, author, and advocate of bioremediation and medicinal fungi, believes that Earth is in danger. He is considered an intellectual and industry leader in fungi: habitat, medicinal use, and production. He lectures extensively to deepen the understanding and respect for the organisms that literally exist under every footstep taken on this path of life. He also believes that mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi that produce mushrooms, can help save it.
His central premise is that habitats have immune systems, just like people, and mushrooms are cellular bridges between the two. Our close evolutionary relationship to fungi can be the basis for novel pairings in the microbiome that lead to greater sustainability and immune enhancement.
In his Ted Talk, Stamets calls mycelium “soil magicians.” But how exactly does he propose these soil magicians can save the world? To answer this question, it’s best to first understand how mycelium works.
How Mycelium Works and Why It’s So Important
When compared to a plant, mycelium is the root system and the mushroom is the flower. As mushrooms rot, they give rise to more and more mycelium. Mycelium inhales oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide, just like humans.
If you think of mushrooms as human beings, you could say they have externalized stomachs and lungs. In fact, these are simply extended neurological membranes. The cavities in these membranes hold water, which allows the mycelium to host microbial communities that give rise to many different organisms.
An important characteristic to note is that mycelium has the ability to reroute information when any one of its branches break, making fungus behave just like the internet! In fact, according to Stamets, the internet was modeled after mycelium, which was previously proven biologically successful.
Because it has been so successful, it’s been studied extensively and in recent decades, scientists have begun to realize that mycelium is not only growing and consuming for the survival of its own species but also for the benefit of the entire ecosystem.
The following are five ways that mushrooms can be used to save the world, as outlined in Paul Stamets’ Ted Talk.
- Mycelium can save soil that has been saturated with diesel and other petroleum wastes.
In a study done on four piles of contaminated soil – a control pile, one treated with bacteria, one treated with enzymes, and the last treated with mushroom mycelium – the one treated with mycelium was found to have absorbed the oil. If this substance can restore habitats exposed to toxic waste, just imagine what it could do to save farmlands close to factories!
- Mycelium can create entirely new biological communities.
As the mycelium absorbs nutrients from the oil-drenched soil, they break down carbon-hydrogen bonds and remanufacture the hydrocarbons into carbohydrates or fungal sugars. The spores that are present attract insects, which attract birds, who carry seeds, ultimately creating an entirely new biological community.
- Mycelium can produce vaccines.
Agarikon mushrooms, a very rare type of fungi, produce highly active vaccines against pox viruses and flu viruses (AH1N1, H3N2, among others). Since terrorism makes use of biological warfare, Stamets believes that saving these mushrooms can be considered a matter of national defense.
And here’s a fun fact: Not only does mycelium aid in the transfer of nutrients to many kinds of plants, but since humans and mushrooms share the same pathogens, the best and strongest antibiotics come from fungi!
- Mycelium is a near-permanent solution to harmful insects.
Fungi kill harmful insects like carpenter ants and termites. More than that, the spores from the mushrooms repel the insects, making this a near-permanent solution to carpenter ants or termites reinvasion. It is, so far, the most disruptive technology in the pesticide industry.
- Mycelium is a solution to the energy crisis.
Mycelium converts cellulose into fungal sugars. This process produces Econol. Econol is ethanol generated from cellulose using mycelium as an intermediary. This can address the energy crisis by building carbon banks on the planet and renewing soils.
Will fungi will play a pivotal role in the new industries of the 21st century?
Indeed, gourmet and medicinal mushrooms will most likely continue to appeal to organic gardeners, commercial cultivators, researchers, nutritionists, and ecological managers. At the same time, perhaps there will be a quantum leap in their popularity when the public realizes that Stamets’ research is essential to create a paradigm shift for helping ecosystems worldwide.