By Linda Baker
Once you have heard “renaissance mycologist” Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms, you will never look at the world–not to mention your backyard–in the same way again. The author of two seminal textbooks, The Mushroom Cultivator and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, Stamets runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned gourmet and medicinal mushroom business in Shelton, in Washington. His convictions about the expanding role that mushrooms will play in the development of earth-friendly technologies and medicines have led him to collect and clone more than 250 strains of wild mushrooms–which he stores in several on and off-site gene libraries.
Until recently, claims Stamets, mushrooms were largely ignored by the mainstream medical and environmental establishment. Or, as he puts it, “they suffered from biological racism.” But Stamets is about to thrust these higher fungi into the 21st century. In collaboration with several public and private agencies, he is pioneering the use of “mycoremediation” and “mycofiltration” technologies. These involve the cultivation of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites, improve ecological and human health, and in a particularly timely bit of experimentation, break down chemical warfare agents possessed by Saddam Hussein.
“Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet and the vanguard species in habitat restoration,” says Stamets, who predicts that bioremediation using fungi will soon be a billion-dollar industry. “If we just stay at the crest of the mycelial wave, it will take us into heretofore unknown territories that will be just magnificent in their implications.”
A former logger turned scanning-electron microscopist, Stamets is not your typical scientist–a role he obviously relishes. “Some people think I’m a mycological heretic, some people think I’m a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I’m crazy,” he says cheerfully. His discussions of mushroom form and function are sprinkled with wide-ranging–and provocative–mycological metaphors, among them his belief that “fungal intelligence” provides a framework for understanding everything from string theory in modern physics to the structure of the Internet.
In a recent interview, Stamets also spoke mysteriously of a yet-to-be-unveiled project he calls the “life box,” his plan for “re-greening the planet” using fungi. “It’s totally fun, totally revolutionary. It’s going to put smiles on the faces of grandmothers and young children,” he says. “And it’s going to be the biggest story of the decade.”