On a small mushroom farm tucked away about an hour south of Seattle, Paul Stamets has his nose in the dirt. Under the soil everywhere on Earth is the largest network of organism-to-organism communication—the natural Internet, he calls it. Stamets is one of the world’s leading mycologists (meaning that he studies mushrooms and their root structure known as mycelium). There’s immense power in mycelium, he says, for things like boosting human immunity, cleaning up oil spills, and guarding against outbreaks of disease. But more than anything. Paul Stamets just loves to smell it.
The fact that mushrooms have inherent power is itself a surprise—at least to me. A lot of people simply think of mushrooms as lawn pests, or as food. In a Ted Talk that Stamets gave in 2011, he tried to make the case that mushrooms have potential to do more for the planet than any other life form, humans included. It was time, he argued, to liberate mushrooms from the clutches of gourmets and psychedelic warlords.
What makes fungi so unique—and the preferred pronunciation is fun-juy rather than fun-guy—is the fact that their cell walls are made of a molecule called chitin instead of cellulose that you’d find in plants. Chitin is bendable yet tough. Its ability to defend itself from outside pathogens makes it valuable in medicine and as food. Perhaps best of all, it grows quickly. Some strains that start about the size of a fingernail can grow into 200,000 pounds of biomass in just a few months.
Burly and bearded, Stamets has the look of a man who knows something about mushrooms. The way he talks—dropping terms like “formation of amloid” and “pre-sporulating extracts”—are a friendly reminder that I don’t. He runs a company called Fungi Perfecti and splits his time between his Shelton, Washington, farm and traveling the world looking for new mushrooms he can take back to the lab to analyze and grow.
How many mycologists actually are there in the world, I asked him as we walked through his backyard old growth forest that was apparently teeming with mycelia. “About 50,000,” he said. “But only 5,000 are employed.”
That makes him one of the lucky ones. His facility is a full-scale farm for growing mycelium. The “Do Not Trespass” signs and warnings that you’re being videotaped are part of Stamets’ plan to keep the farm secure, both from would-be thieves looking for valuable mushroom strains, and occasionally, from the government. A few years ago, Stamets says that a Blackhawk helicopter hovered over the farm suspecting illicit activity. This is a hunch mycologists are used to. He says he had nothing to hide, but he still didn’t trust the feds, so he ordered his employees to all take samples of different strains that could later be replicated, and then to fan out. It turned out to be a big misunderstanding.
We were granted access to understand just what mushrooms and their roots can do. Shiitake mushrooms have been known to boost immunity and lower cholesterol. White button mushrooms have antioxidants that can reduce risk of heart disease.
But it’s the lesser known specimens, strains like turkey tail, oyster and agarikon mushrooms that Stamets wants to study for ways they can, in his words, save the planet. Oyster mushrooms in particular are being tested for their ability to clean up oil spills. A strain Stamets helped develop is tolerant to salt water and can metabolize hydrocarbons. One trial showed that an oyster strain could reduce diesel contaminants from soil from 10,000 parts per million to just 200 ppm in about four months. The process isn’t an instant fix for a disaster, but it was shown to fully eliminate oil organically, without using the type of controversial chemical dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico after 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Other mushrooms like the Mycena alcalina, better known as a stump fairy helmet mushroom, have the potential to break down PCBs, a cancer-causing agent once used in can manufacturing. Stamets explained how the mushroom, if given time to boost its own immune system, could be a defense against chemical weapons that could spread infectious diseases like smallpox.
“Here, smell this,” Stamets says, pushing a handful of bunched up mycelium toward my nose. It resembled cole slaw but it smelled like earth—rich, living, slightly pungent Earth that I can’t help but inhale one more time. “Isn’t it amazing, ahh, I could smell this all day.”
Despite more than four decades studying mushrooms, Stamets is a man who seems to genuinely enjoy preaching about their qualities. He even goes to Burning Man, the desert festival in Northern Nevada, every year to talk about them.
Being an expert in such a small field has its serious benefits, too. In one room Stamets showed us several jars of liquid extracts of mushrooms, potent elixirs that contained advanced strains of some mycelia. “Pharmaceutical companies want this stuff baaaadly,” he told us. A week before our visit, in fact, a company he declined to identify called and asked him to name his price in exchange for some of his most hard-to-find strains that have potential for new drugs.
He’d rather uncover the future secrets of mushrooms on his own. He told them no thanks.