The author of six books on mushroom identification, cultivation and their many incredible uses, renowned mycologist Paul Stamets has studied fungi for over thirty years. We caught up with Stamets, who is the keynote speaker at this year's Telluride Mushroom Festival (known informally as Shroomfest), recently via phone to talk about the event, his favorite mushroom species and how he thinks mushrooms can help save the world.
Westword: What inspired you to study fungi?
Paul Stamets: They were mysterious, poorly understood forbidden fruits. My parents, like many parents, were very afraid of their children picking wild mushrooms. It's not surprising that plants, or mushrooms, or anything that's so powerful that it can heal you, or kill you, invokes fear. That's just one of our survival techniques. It's a natural response.
We now know that human survival has actually been dependent on mushrooms. Because of mycophobia, or the irrational fear of mushrooms, much of this ancestral knowledge has been lost. My core philosophy is that humans and habitats share the same immune system. Mushroom mycelium is a cellular bridge between the two.
Can you explain what mycelium is and why it's important?
Mycelium is a fine, cobweb-like structure that grows literally under every footstep you take. Mycelium structures are the grand de-assemblers of nature. They create soil. Loss of soil is one of the core reasons for famine, loss of biodiversity and climate change. When you deforest a planet, you lose that ability for soil to be regenerated. These habitats have evolved over millions of years. As soil is destroyed, we lose biodiversity and mycodiversity, and we are unraveling the very ecosystem that gives us life.
The good news is that we have many fungal allies that we can engage to help us recover ecosystems. Fungi are essential for sustainability. We have thousands of species in our ecosystem. Each one of those has its own skill set and a unique aptitude to help us. The cool thing about mycelium is that it holds water in the soil, and so when you have mycelium in the soil, the water bank is greatly enhanced. The absence of mycelium in the soil reduces the capacity of the soil to hold water.
Can you tell us about your work in what you've termed "mycorestoration?"
My work with mycorestoration takes advantage of the many enzymes and antibacterial properties that mushroom-growing fungi have within them. The enzymes are secreted as a sweat, like little Pac-Mans that go around chopping up larger molecules into simpler forms. The enzymes break the bond between hydrogen and carbon, so by a wonderful quirk of nature, fungi break down hydrocarbons like petroleum. We can use oyster mushrooms to break down a wide variety of toxins. As the toxins are broken down, biodiversity flourishes.
You're giving three talks as the keynote speaker at the annual Telluride Mushroom Festival. What are they on?
The first one will be on using mycelium for mycofiltration and mycoremediation, in situ remediation of toxic waste sites (like an oil spill on land, etc.). It will also cover mycoinsecticide. I hold five patents right now that can eliminate chemical pesticides. My dream is to be able to control locust plagues in Africa or elsewhere [using mushrooms].
The second talk is on the evolution of fungi on Earth. Again, humans and habitats share immune systems. I'll be reporting on the findings of a NIH-funded breast cancer study using turkey tail mushrooms.
The last one, on the Merry Pranksters -- I'm officially a Merry Prankster -- is about the convergence of the Merry Pranksters and the psychedelic scientists. That convergence helped fuel the computer and Internet revolution in the U.S., the environmental movement, and helped us focus on taking care of the planet that supports us.
What are some of your favorite species of mushrooms?
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In Telluride, one of my favorites is porcini, or Boletus edulis, a big, fat, super-succulent edible mushroom now coming up in abundance in Colorado. Telluride is noted for its abundant crops of porcini. If Italians knew how many porcinis are growing in Colorado, there would be a major depopulation of Italy.