Paul Stamets is a visionary scientist, who—in his advocacy of medicinal mushrooms, fungal bioremediation, and biodiversity—is the world’s foremost ally of the humble mushroom. Here we have Stamets in conversation with Phil Ross, an artist who sculpts using fungal materials. Welcome to the poetry of mycology.
The simplest and least informative way to describe Paul Stamets is that he is a scientist who studies mushrooms—a mycologist. But like the visionary engineer Buckminster Fuller before him, Stamets is a fountain of constant, innovative thought; his revolutionary view of the world is testament to his comprehensive understanding of applied design within dynamic systems. Stamets shares his intensive fascination with the fungal kingdom through his many books, published papers, patents, and deep online presence. He has advanced the field of applied mycology and research while at the same time forging the craft of his science to reflect his greater holistic views. Over the years, he’s also grown a dedicated global audience from the more fantastic claims he attributes to the powers of mushrooms and their kin.
In the mid nineties I read one of Paul’s books about growing gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, which for me opened up a way of considering both technology and the environment within a reconciled and freeing space. His books provided reliable and well-illustrated recipes for all of the stages of growing a mushroom, ranging from the delicate subtleties of tissue culturing, to managing the flow of giant volumes of mushroom material produced by an advanced operation. Amid the excellent technical information in the books were descriptions of the larger importance that mushrooms serve in the life cycles of the Earth, the significance of mushrooms in non-Western health practices, as well as references to mushrooms as being “teachers” and “allies” for us humans. It was an unorthodox mix of information that seemed out of place within a guide to laboratory biotechnologies. I now understand this as a response of language to the constraints of explaining the living world.
Over the past two decades, I’ve followed the initial lessons from Paul’s books, and, as an artist, have developed structural materials grown from mushroom tissue. In pursuing my own research across multiple disciplines, I’ve come to respect the need for new scientific languages—and so it was exciting to conference with Stamets in the shared dialect of the mushroom people. Paul Stamets spoke to me from his home deep in the old growth forests of Washington, where he studies, cultivates, and evangelizes on behalf of fungi in an unaffiliated laboratory.
Thank you, Paul, for taking the time to talk with me. I was incredibly excited when I heard that OMNI was coming back again, and super excited when they asked me to interview you, so it feels a bit like stepping into the dream machine. I want to start out with a question of your own experiences or memories with OMNI Magazine.
Stamets: Well, in fact, it’s very interesting, because in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was an OMNI subscriber. When the Internet was born, some of the higher-ups at OMNI declared that now print is archaic because it’s being replaced by the internet. I thought that was strategically a bad move, because many of us were absolutely in love with OMNI. Not only the format, but how beautiful the presentation was. OMNI, in a sense, was too early of an adopter of Internet. It’s great that now OMNI is being reborn, because I think there’s enough space for both printed and Internet media.
Were there any specific authors that you encountered, or ideas that you saw in OMNI, that really got your mind going?
Stamets: Well, it was the fusion of the biological sciences, astrophysics, and computer technologies. That’s where I thought there was a real sweet spot—that OMNI was able to merge those three schools of science in a way that recreated new ideas and was able to give birth to a lot of exciting derivative thoughts. It was an interesting milieu. You had these ingredients which not only spoke to the ideas that were being proposed in the magazine, but subsequently moved downstream to other types of thoughts and thinking. It was a real example of scientific synergism. That’s where I think OMNI really made its mark, was in being able to accomplish that.
Yes, it was really far ahead of its time in imagining where a lot of these technologies would comfortably sit together along with culture. At that time, that just seemed so far out and distant. And that day seems to have arrived.
This kind goes into my next question-slash-statement; I know that you always honor your teachers at the beginning of your presentations, and you certainly were a great teacher for me, through your books. They were an entry point to both thinking about mushrooms and to laboratory technique. I would like to honor you, in that regard. When I encountered your books, I noticed a real familiarity with things that I had already paid attention to—like the Whole Earth Catalog, encyclopedias, and cookbooks—things that had a lot of information, not necessarily in a specific hierarchical order, but as an index by which you would actually discover deeper connections by doing the work. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit to your own conception of how you organized your books, because I think they are really unique in how they bring so many different types of technical and historical informations all under one roof.
Stamets: Well, that’s a very wide-open, interesting, and complex question. I have several responses to it. I grew up in a small town in Ohio. I grew up in a large house; my family had steel mills and saw mills, and then the company—my father’s company—went bankrupt in the late 1960s. It was the machine tool industry that collapsed . I was the youngest one in my family, but we had a large laboratory in the basement. I was always forbidden from doing experiments because of my alpha older brothers. When they went off to college, I was left with a fully-equipped laboratory. I’m talking four rows of shelves, the main communication radio for the aircraft carrier, the Intrepid; my Dad was on the Intrepid, and so after World War II, he got their radio. So I was putting in these giant banks that had certain wavelengths, and I was listening to coded messages, you know, from East of the Iron Curtain. It was absolutely wonderful for me because I’m still a kid scientist—I was then. I nearly blew up the house a few times, but I always had this dream of being a scientist living in the country.
And so I went on to a private school in Pennsylvania, and then came out to Washington State. Many of us men suffer from testosterone poisoning, and I needed a job, so I went into the woods. Being in a laboratory environment for a long time, having a very scientific family, and being thrown then into the wood products industry, we were cutting down the old growth forest, and I saw tons and tons of carbon going out per acre from a forest that took 10,000 years to produce. When these trees would topple over, seeing how shallow the soil was that gave rise to these mammoth trees really fascinated me, from a biological point of view as well as from an evolutionary point of view.
I believe that the invention of the computer internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously-proven evolutionarily successful model. I believe that internet-web-like organisms will be found throughout the cosmos. This is the way of nature.
So I went back to college with my fascination. I was in contact with a lot of fungi in the woods, and so I started doing mushroom identification, taking specimens back into the college laboratory, and studying them. That led to access to a scanning electron microscope, and that led to a huge epiphany in my life. Looking at the mushrooms, and at the mushroom mycelium, highly magnified, what spoke very loudly to me was their weblike design.
That was the beginning of Internet. Back then I remember trying to find references, and I was told of a DARPA project that was able to search all sorts of literature for any references, but it was top-secret and we couldn’t get access to it. But the need was there. It struck me very early on that the mushroom mycelium is an information-sharing network. As our understanding of the mycelium and its behavior and its structure grew, this led to an understanding that network-based systems are resistant to catastrophia by their very design. There’s no one point, or specific place, that the entire weblike structure can be brought down. It was not only the perfect example, to me, of how these web-based systems have been evolutionarily successful, but it also spoke to the fact that weblike designs are seen throughout nature at different orders of magnitude, in space and time. I believe that the invention of the computer internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously-proven evolutionarily successful model. I believe that internet-web-like organisms will be found throughout the cosmos. This is the way of nature.
They might have also done an endgame and infiltrated our minds through these technologies as a communication interface. I think Rudy Rucker proposed this, that really, when you get to a level of connection, then you can start to communicate with organizational forms that were previously unavailable. So the internet might actually just be an end-routing into our brains of the mycelium network.
Stamets: There’s this weird similarity of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the quote-unquote neurotransmitter psilocybin. I mean, chemically, they’re very very similar. We don’t understand the messaging system within mycelium as well as we do that of the brain—most of what we know about the brain is very preliminary. But I think as the science progresses, I think this is well worth investigating. I was invited down to an internet company recently because they realize that they’ve come to a functional limit on how small they can make circuits and microprocessors, and they’re really going back to the atomic level now.
Through networking mycelium in combination with mutualistic bacteria we might be able to create living computer membranes that would help us make the bridge between humans and nature. I think nature is speaking rather vociferously to us, but we can’t what hear the message is. So being able to create these interfaces, directly to the traffic of nature that’s given us birth, I think is going to be critical to human survival.
Absolutely, and I think that actually goes into my next question, which is about one of these early tools of communication—or at least of observation—microscopy. I spent the better part of three years with my own face mashed up against a microscope, working with slime mold and observing their behaviors, and I can speak to what a life-altering experience that was to greater reality: I thought about how much information and activity was going on all the time, all around me, that I was not aware of. It displaced my sense of space and time in a pretty profound way. I was wondering if you could speak to your own experiences with scanning electron microscopy.
Stamets: Well, the first impression I think many people have, working with any microscope—with scanning electron microscopes or transmission ones—is that space is a continuum. We are limited by the focal ability of our eyes, but with microscopes we are able to see that there is a spatial continuum. As we go into smaller and smaller worlds, it’s quite obvious that as we go out, we go into outer and outer worlds, and there’s a tremendous symmetry between what is happening microscopically, at the atomic level, as well as what we’re seeing in our solar system and in galaxies.
Through networking mycelium in combination with mutualistic bacteria we might be able to create living computer membranes that would help us make the bridge between humans and nature. I think nature is speaking rather vociferously to us, but we can’t what hear the message is.
One of the most significant things that I realized is that space is a continuum, as is energy. We live in space-energy-time, at different points. Our reference points are who we are, when we are, and what we are—and where we are—but we have the ability to move in and out of these different dimensions. I think this portends a lot of where the scientific research should go. We live in a multiverse, according to many physicists now. Wrapping your mind around that concept is challenging, but it does suggest that there are many universes coinciding simultaneously. We have one focal frame of reference, but there are many different focal points that are coexisting simultaneously at the same time. Us getting out of that mindset and into that multi-dimensional-set is going to be one of the great challenges of the next several centuries.
Yes, and this is as much a cultural challenge, because I think what you’re talking about is a re-imagining of reality. How do you see beyond the apparent to what actually might be there? You have talked about your own visualizations of what’s going on at the molecular level as well as larger issues that are the concern of the organism—its morphology and general biology—which gives you this deeper understanding both of the science of it, and where you could take the technology too. Understanding those things on a profound level, in a holistic way, is very different from how a lot of science is practiced today, which is breaking things down into these smaller and smaller elements until you can have something that you’re absolutely certain of—but that’s also fully removed from the organism itself. But that’s as much of a statement as a question.
I want to ask you about some of your own experiences in trying to bring some of your discoveries to market. In some of your videos you talk about the difficulties you’ve had with this. Do you have advice to people who are seeking to commercialize their own discovery?
Stamets: That’s a great question. Let me give you some of the premise to this. I have seven patents that are revolutionary by many people’s opinion. Many scientists had discovered that insects can be parasitized by certain fungi, which are called entomopathogens, and I made a discovery which I think is a direct result of constantly questioning authority, and speaking to the concept that I believe that some of the biggest mistakes in science occur at the beginning of the decision tree. The consequential discovered knowledge going downstream from that fork in thinking, unfortunately, obliviates the other derivative knowledge that you would discover had you gone down a different path.
What I found is related to the delicate dance between entomopathogenic fungi and insects. Most insects are repelled by a pathogen, they can smell it. Over hundreds of millions of years, insects have realized that these fungi can kill them and infect them, and so they avoid them. Well, I discovered that just as these cultures are dying the insects that are otherwise repelled by the spores are attracted to the mycelium that is now not producing the spores. They’re not attracted to them; they’re super attracted to them. So I’ve discovered a number of fungi and received patents for fungal strains that can work against carpenter ants, termites, and fire ants—and then I proved it with more social and non-social insects, and the patent office gave me broad patents encompassing this relationship against all insects without restriction to species.
God, Paul, that’s such a broad patent, that’s amazing! It’s a gigantic breakthrough.
Stamets: Pretty major breakthrough. This is not my speciality. I give credit to 500+ other mycologists who spent their lives working on this. I spoke to several of them afterwards and they told me that their professors, when they proposed this idea to them, said, “no, that won’t work, don’t try that.” I thought that was really interesting. I didn’t have a professor that kept on telling me not to try things. I had a professor that said “go for it, how interesting.” Because of that academic encouragement, and challenging scientific authority, and not accepting that which other people assumed to be correct and not-challengeable, my discoveries—which really, were outside of my field of specialities—are hugely significant.
It’s a disruptive technology. The majority of pesticides and herbicides come from the petroleum industry, and so I have not been able to bring this to market. It would cost me several million dollars to do so. That’s one example of the boy-scientist playing in his laboratory and observing nature, asking questions that I think are, in a sense, obvious to ones who are innocent of being prejudiced by some of the orthodox dictations of science that have made presumptions that are, I think, fatally flawed.
That’s just a gigantic breakthrough and also a very broad patent. I mean, that’s incredibly broad.
Stamets: I’m really happy that a group of Russian virologists just came out with a press announcement that they discovered that some of these polypore mushrooms, including Chaga and Agarikon, are highly active against flu viruses.
We are still Neanderthals with nuclear weapons, barely beginning to understand the importance of nature and its wealth. And the innate knowledge that we can tap into.
Well, I filed a patent on that ten years ago. So it’s great news for me that Russian virologists have authenticated something that I discovered through the BioShield BioDefense Program. After 9/11, they contacted me, we submitted about seven hundred samples of extracts—the extracts we can make from mycelium and extracts we can make from the fruit bodies—and after getting the results back, we had extraordinarily high activity against pox viruses with this Agarikon mushroom. The Agarikon mushroom is the longest-living mushroom in the world, and within it there is a repertoire of antibacterial and antiviral compounds that are part of the host defense system of keeping this mushroom alive. Many of the same pathogens that afflict us also afflict mushrooms, and so here is a natural product that has within it a very potent anti-smallpox, anti-avian flu, anti-Strep, anti-E. Coli, and anti-tubercular molecules and yet very little toxicity to us when we consume it.
Most people may not realize this, but 70% of all anti-cancer drugs come from nature. Nature is a wellspring of new molecules, but we lose synergism when we isolate one molecule away from the other molecules that can give us benefits. The majority of flu victims die from Staph and other bacterial infections. And so when you get a viral infection, your immune system is depressed, and bacteria can take advantage of you. Having a natural product that is dualistically effective against bacteria and viruses, and moreover has a multiplicity of defenses against many viruses and many bacteria, I think speaks to the intelligence and usefulness of natural products and nature. We are still Neanderthals with nuclear weapons, barely beginning to understand the importance of nature and its wealth. And the innate knowledge that we can tap into.
It’s kind of a shock when people see how mushrooms are grown in a laboratory, when most of their experience of them has been in the forest, where they’re used to all these organisms living together. And that question always comes up: why is this the way that we are growing mushrooms? I have to explain that this as much an artifact of our view of science as it is anything to do with the biology. You’re talking about that—this connection between the laboratory and the outdoors.
Stamets: That’s a really good point, Phil, because we’re really talking about interface environments. The mycelium of the species that I grow are edge-runners. They love to grow at the interface of two environments. As edge-runners, they’re at the leading edge of change. And so they’re morphing and changing the environment suitable to their own best interest, to their own progeny. They can condition environments: they run along these interfaces and edges to help themselves, and then in doing so, they bring, because of mutualism, and synergism, in their aftermath these mycelial networks create the food webs, to support downstream organisms that then give rise to microbial communities, that then give rise to the plants that create debris fields that feed the mycelium. So they are deterministically interested in their own survival by creating ecosystems, and these ecosystems typically are biodiverse, so they can withstand the impacts of change and ultimately lead to longevity of the species creating these environments.
There’s a book by Stanislaw Lem called Solaris, which has to do with a breakdown of communication between a global entity and specific human interests, and how they are trying to communicate with one another but don’t really have the tools to do so. What do you think is the best way to start to listen to the language of nature?
Stamets: We were once forest people. Not long ago, we were living intimately and dependent upon the forest ecosystems, and all the organisms that lived within. 23 primates consume mushrooms, and are able to identify poisonous ones from edible ones. I think this speaks volumes, that we’ve had this intimate relationship with nature that we have strayed away from over time. There has been a giant chasm created over time as we went away from the forest. And now we’re going full-circle, I think, understanding that the forest ecosystems that give us life and sustenance need to be re-explored. There are a lot of opportunities here for us to make new discoveries. You know, mushrooms have such strong attributes—it’s not unusual for humans to avoid that which is so powerful. Now with our modern scientific understanding, it’s time for us to re-explore the forest fungi, for many of the benefits they can give us.
If you become a mushroom person, your language tends to become a bit more refractive, or like a kaleidoscope. This question often comes to me: why do mushroom people talk like that? Can you do a little bit of a self-analysis or cultural analysis as to why mushroom people are always talking about everything but the subject at hand?
Stamets: We create words to have a language of communication. So much of the science of mushrooms is new, so we have to create new words or borrow words. I created the word “mycoremediation.” The rule of language is you want to make the language shorter and more efficient. So the word was “bioremediation with fungi.” Well, that became “mycoremediation.” To someone who’s never heard the word mycoremediation, well, what’s that? It’s bioremediation with fungi, but it’s a shorter word, and a shorter way to explain it. We are creating a new mycolanguage, where we’re coming up with concepts that are new to science, and we have to create the new language tools in order to communicate them. We are a little bit mycocentric in our interests, but this happens with any new emerging science. I think it speaks to the richness and the wealth of knowledge that we’re tapping into that is new to science.
Throughout the history of biology, with Canguilhem, Margulis, or E.O. Wilson, or any other person who knew that they had to encapsulate an entire concept within a word to somehow make it real and move it forward.
Stamets: Welcome to the poetry of mycology.
You just have to dive in. Here’s one last question, Paul, and you can interpret this however you see fit: How do you draw a rainbow?
Stamets: How do I draw a rainbow? What a beautiful question that is. I believe my drawing of a rainbow is by existing in a state of being that benefits and respects all of the colors of nature.