Mycologist Paul Stamets lists 6 ways the mycelium fungus can help save the World: cleaning polluted soil, making insecticides, treating smallpox and even flu viruses
I want to present to you a suite of six mycological solutions, using fungi, and these solutions are based on mycelium. The mycelium infuses all landscapes, it holds soils together, it’s extremely tenacious. This holds up to 30,000 times its mass. They’re the grand molecular disassemblers of nature — the soil magicians. They generate the humus soils across the landmasses of Earth. We have now discovered that there is a multi-directional transfer of nutrients between plants, mitigated by the mcyelium — so the mycelium is the mother that is giving nutrients from alder and birch trees to hemlocks, cedars and Douglas firs.
Mushrooms produce strong antibiotics. In fact, we’re more closely related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom. A group of 20 eukaryotic microbiologists published a paper two years ago erecting opisthokonta — a super-kingdom that joins animalia and fungi together.
We exhale carbon dioxide, so does mycelium. It inhales oxygen, just like we do. But these are essentially externalized stomachs and lungs. And I present to you a concept that these are extended neurological membranes. And in these cavities, these micro-cavities form, and as they fuse soils, they absorb water. These are little wells. And inside these wells, then microbial communities begin to form. And so the spongy soil not only resists erosion, but sets up a microbial universe that gives rise to a plurality of other organisms.
The mycelium is sentient. It knows that you are there. When you walk across landscapes, it leaps up in the aftermath of your footsteps trying to grab debris.
Mycelium produces oxalic acids, and many other acids and enzymes, pockmarking rock and grabbing calcium and other minerals and forming calcium oxalates. Makes the rocks crumble, and the first step in the generation of soil. Oxalic acid is two carbon dioxide molecules joined together. So, fungi and mycelium sequester carbon dioxide in the form of calcium oxalates. And all sorts of other oxalates are also sequestering carbon dioxide through the minerals that are being formed and taken out of the rock matrix.
Mycelium is Earth’s Natural Internet
These are gateway species, vanguard species that open the door for other biological communities.
1. Cleaning Up Oil Spills: Stamets laid some mycelium on an oil spill as part of an experiment to compare it with other solutions. The fungi absorbed the oil, broke the carbon hydrogen bonds and re-manufactured it into carbohydrates. Soon, insects were attracted to the pile, then birds came to eat the insects, the birds dropped vegetation seeds and a new ecosystem was on its way. “Our pile became an oasis of life,” Stamets said. “The other piles were dead, dark and stinky.”
2. Absorbing Farm Pollution: Encouraged by the oil experiment, Stamets then created burlap sacs filled with debris and mycelium and placed them downstream of farms to filter runoff. “We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of coliforms,” he said, noting that in a few days the mushrooms had reduced the bacteria by 10,000 times.
3. Fighting off Disease: Stamets introduces a mushroom called agarikon. It lives only in old-growth forests, is thought to be extinct in Europe and is very rare in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. He worked to test the fungus with the Department of Defense and found that three strains are highly active against pox viruses and three are highly active against the flu. “I then think that we can make the argument that we should save the old-growth forest as a matter of national defense,” Stamets said.
4. Combating Insects: Termites, carpenter ants and other insects can be a scourge to people’s houses, and some fungus-based insecticides don’t work because the creatures know to avoid the spores. So Stamets developed a mycelium that didn’t produce spores and laid it down in his house. “The ants were attracted to the mycelium, because there’s no spores,” he said. “They gave it to the queen. One week later, I had no sawdust piles whatsoever.” Then, mushrooms popped out of the insect carcasses, which did have spores and warned other ants to avoid the house altogether.
5. Re-Greening The Planet: One of Stamets’ inventions is the life box, which includes fungi spores that you add to soil, water and cardboard. That creates a rich environment to plant other seeds, like corns, beans, squash and onions for refugee populations. You can also use tree seeds to jump-start a new forest. “You end up growing — potentially — an old-growth forest from a cardboard box,” he says.
6. Creating A Sustainable Fuel Source: Perhaps the most remarkable promise of mycelium is the potential to move us away from fossil fuel in a sustainable, earth-friendly way. Instead of wasting energy by going directly from cellulose to ethanol, he uses mycelium as an intermediary, allowing the fungus to naturally convert cellulose into fungal sugars. “I think that we need to be econologically intelligent about the generation of fuels,” Stamets said. “So, we build the carbon banks on the planet, renew the soils.”