Friday, December 6, 2013

How Mushrooms Can Save the World

How Mushrooms Can Save the World

Crusading mycologist Paul Stamets says fungi can clean up everything from oil spills to nuclear meltdowns.

By Kenneth Miller|Friday, May 31, 2013

Pioppino mushrooms (Agrocybe aegerita) induced tumor regression, reversing cancer in lab mice. The species also controlled blood sugar in diabetic mice.
Stuart Isett
For Paul Stamets, the phrase “mushroom hunt” does not denote a leisurely stroll with a napkin-lined basket. This morning, a half-dozen of us are struggling to keep up with the mycologist as he charges through a fir-and-alder forest on Cortes Island, British Columbia. It’s raining steadily, and the moss beneath our feet is slick, but Stamets, 57, barrels across it like a grizzly bear heading for a stump full of honey. He vaults over fallen trees, scrambles up muddy ravines, plows through shin-deep puddles in his rubber boots. He never slows down, but he halts abruptly whenever a specimen demands his attention.
This outing is part of a workshop on the fungi commonly known as mushrooms — a class of organisms whose cell walls are stiffened by a molecule called chitin instead of the cellulose found in plants, and whose most ardent scientific evangelist is the man ahead of us. Stamets is trying to find a patch of chanterelles, a variety known for its exquisite flavor. But the species that stop him in his tracks, and bring a look of bliss to his bushy-bearded face, possess qualities far beyond the culinary.
He points to a clutch of plump oyster mushrooms halfway up an alder trunk. “These could clean up oil spills all over the planet,” he says. He ducks beneath a rotting log, where a rare, beehive-like Agarikon dangles. “This could provide a defense against weaponized smallpox.” He plucks a tiny, gray Mycena alcalina from the soil and holds it under our noses. “Smell that? It seems to be outgassing chlorine.” To Stamets, that suggests it can break down toxic chlorine-based polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Most Americans think of mushrooms as ingredients in soup or intruders on a well-tended lawn. Stamets, however, cherishes a grander vision, one trumpeted in the subtitle of his 2005 book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Mushroom-producing fungi, he believes, can serve as game changers in fields as disparate as medicine, forestry, pesticides and pollution control. He has spent the past quarter-century preaching that gospel to anyone who will listen.


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