If anyone knows about going fungal, it’s Paul Stamets. I have often wondered whether he has been infected with a fungus that fills him with mycological zeal—and an irrepressible urge to persuade humans that fungi are keen to partner with us in new and peculiar ways. I went to visit him at his home on the west coast of Canada. The house is balanced on a granite bluff, looking out to sea. The roof is suspended on beams that look like mushroom gills. A Star Trek fan since the age of 12, Stamets christened his new house Starship Agarikon—agarikon is another name for Laricifomes officinalis, a medicinal wood-rotting fungus that grows in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
“Oh my god.” Stamets woke up. “I think I know how to save the bees.”
I’ve known Stamets since I was a teenager. Every time I see him I’m met with a flurry of electrifying fungal news flashes. Within minutes his mycological patter picks up speed, and he leaps between bulletins almost faster than he can talk, a ceaseless torrent of fungal enthusiasm. When Stamets was a teenager, he suffered from a debilitating stammer. One day, he took a heroic dose of magic mushrooms and climbed to the top of a tall tree, where he was trapped by a lightning storm. When he came down, his stammer was gone. Stamets was converted. Since his influential work on psilocybin mushrooms in the 1970s, he has grown into an unlikely hybrid between fungal evangelist and tycoon. His TED Talk— “Six Ways that Mushrooms Can Save the World”—has been viewed millions of times. He runs a multimillion-dollar fungal business, Fungi Perfecti, which does a roaring trade in everything from antiviral throat sprays to fungal dog treats (Mutt-rooms). His books on mushroom identification and cultivation—including the definitive Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World—continue to provide a crucial reference for countless mycologists.
In Stamets’ world, fungal solutions run amok. Give him an insoluble problem and he’ll toss you a new way it can be decomposed, poisoned, or healed by a fungus. Fungi are veteran survivors of ecological disruption. Their ability to cling on—and often flourish—through periods of catastrophic change is one of their defining characteristics. They are inventive, flexible, and collaborative. With much of life on Earth threatened by human activity, are there ways we can partner with fungi to help us adapt? Stamets and a growing number of mycologists think exactly this. Many symbioses have formed in times of crisis. The algal partner in a lichen can’t make a living on bare rock without striking up a relationship with a fungus. Might it be that we can’t adjust to life on a damaged planet without cultivating new fungal relationships?
One of the ways fungi might help us is by helping to restore contaminated ecosystems. In “mycoremediation,” as the field is known, fungi become collaborators in environmental clean-up operations. We have recruited fungi to break things down for millennia. The diverse microbial populations in our guts remind us that in those moments in our evolutionary history when we haven’t been able to digest something by ourselves, we’ve pulled microbes on board. Where this has proved impossible, we’ve outsourced the process using barrels, jars, compost heaps, and industrial fermenters. Human life hinges on many forms of external digestion using fungi, from alcohol, to soy sauce, to vaccines, to penicillin, to the citric acid used in all fizzy drinks. This sort of partnering—in which different organisms together sing a metabolic “song” neither could sing alone—enacts one of the oldest evolutionary maxims. Mycoremediation is just a special case.
Fungi can transform many common pollutants in soil and waterways that endanger lives, whether human or otherwise. They are able to degrade pesticides (such as chlorophenols), synthetic dyes, the explosives TNT and RDX, crude oil, some plastics, and a range of human and veterinary drugs not removed by wastewater treatment plants, from antibiotics to synthetic hormones. And yet decomposition is only part of the story. Heavy metals accumulate within fungal tissues, which can then be removed and disposed of safely. The dense meshwork of mycelium can even be used to filter polluted water. Mycofiltration removes infectious diseases such as E. coli and can sop up heavy metals like a sponge—a company in Finland uses this approach to reclaim gold from electronic waste.
When I showed up at Starship Agarikon, I found Stamets sitting on the deck fiddling around with a mason jar and a blue plastic dish. It was the prototype for a bee feeder he had invented. The jar dribbled sugar water laced with fungal extracts into the dish, and bees crawled through a chute to get to it. Even by Stamets’s standards, this project was a big headline. His 2018 study, co-authored with entomologists at the Washington State University bee lab, had been accepted by the journal Nature Scientific Reports. He and his team had shown that extracts of certain fungi could be used to reduce bee mortality dramatically.
About a third of global agricultural output depends on pollination from animals, particularly honeybees, and the precipitous decline in bee populations is one of the many pressing threats to humanity. A number of factors contribute to the syndrome known as colony collapse disorder. Widespread use of insecticides is one. Habitat loss is another. The most insidious problem, however, is the varroa mite, appropriately named Varroa destructor. Varroa mites are parasites that suck fluid from bees’ bodies and are vectors for a range of deadly viruses.
Give Paul Stamets an insoluble problem and he’ll toss you a new way it can be decomposed, poisoned, or healed by a fungus.
Wood-rotting fungi are a rich source of antiviral compounds, many of which have long been used as medicines, particularly in China. After 9/11, Stamets collaborated with the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense in Project BioShield, a search for compounds that could be used to fight viral storms unleashed by biological terrorists. Of the thousands of compounds tested, some of Stamets’s extracts from wood-rotting fungi had the strongest activity against a number of deadly viruses, including smallpox, herpes, and flu. He had been producing these extracts for human consumption for several years—it is largely these products that have made Fungi Perfecti into a multimillion-dollar business. But the idea of using them to treat bees was a more recent brainwave.
The effects of the fungal extracts on the bees’ viral infections were unambiguous. Adding a one percent extract of amadou (or Fomes) and reishi (Ganoderma) to bees’ sugar water reduced deformed wing virus eighty-fold. Fomes extracts reduced levels of Lake Sinai virus nearly ninety-fold, and Ganoderma extracts reduced it forty-five-thousand-fold. Steve Sheppard, a professor of entomology at Washington State University and one of Stamets’s collaborators on the study, observed that he had not encountered any other substance that could extend the life of bees to this extent.
Stamets told me how he had come up with the idea. He was daydreaming. All of a sudden, separate lines of thought came together and hit him “like a lightning bolt.” If fungal extracts had antiviral properties, then maybe they’d help reduce the viral load of bees—and yes, in fact, he remembered that in the late 1980s, he had watched bees from his hives visiting a pile of rotting wood chips in his garden, moving the chips aside to feed on the mycelium underneath. “Oh my god.” Stamets woke up. “I think I know how to save the bees.” It was a big moment, even for someone who has spent decades dreaming up fungal solutions to obstinate problems.
Stamets’ narrative style is straight out of an American blockbuster movie. Many of his accounts feature fungal heroes, poised to save the planet from almost certain doom. But will antiviral compounds produced by wood-rotting fungi really save the bees? Stamets’s findings are promising, but it’s too early to say whether the fungal extracts will translate into fewer collapsed colonies in the long term. Viruses are just one of many problems that bees face. Whether the fungal antivirals perform equally well in other countries and contexts isn’t known. More important, to save bee populations, Stamets’s solution has to be widely adopted, a feat he hopes to accomplish by recruiting the efforts of millions of citizen scientists.
I traveled down to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State to visit Stamets’s production facility. Headquarters is a cluster of large hangar-like sheds, surrounded by woods, several kilometers off the beaten track. This was where Stamets grew and extracted the fungi used in the study. It was where production was soon to be ramped up to bring a product to market for widespread use. In the few months after the bee study had been published, he had received tens of thousands of requests for the BeeMushroomed Feeder. Unable to keep up with demand, Stamets plans to open-source the 3-D printed design in the hope that others will start to manufacture them.
I met one of Stamets’s directors of operations who had agreed to show me around. There was a strict dress code: no shoes, a lab coat, and a hairnet—beard nets were also provided. We kitted up and passed through a special set of double doors designed to reduce the inflow of contaminant-filled air from outside.
We entered the fruiting rooms, which were warm and damp, the air thick and cloying. There were ranks of shelves lined with clear plastic growing bags stitched solid with mycelium sporting all sorts of startling protrusions, from woody reishi mushrooms with their shiny chestnut scalps, to lion’s mane tumbling out of the bags like delicate cream-colored corals. In the reishi fruiting room, the air was so thick with spores I could taste their soft, damp bitterness. After just a couple of minutes my hands were dusted a cappuccino brown.
Humans were going out of their way to divert tons of food into fungal networks. A global crisis was turning into a set of fungal opportunities. Like the challenge faced by Pleurotus mycelium paused at the edge of a puddle of toxic waste, radical mycological solutions are less about inventing than remembering. Somewhere in the Pleurotus genome there is probably an enzyme that will do the job. Perhaps it has done the job before. Perhaps it hasn’t but can be repurposed to serve a new cause. Similarly, somewhere in the history of life there may be a fungal ability or relationship that can inspire a new old solution to one of our many dire problems. I thought of the bee story. Stamets’s eureka moment happened when he remembered something that he had seen decades earlier—bees appearing to medicate themselves using fungi. Stamets didn’t discover the idea of curing bees using fungi. Bees did, we presume, during a biochemical squabble with viruses in a damp corner of their shared history. Somewhere deep in the psycho-spiritual compost heap of his dream world, Stamets metabolized an old radical mycological solution into a new one.
I walked into the growing rooms, packed with shelving units three meters tall. Thousands of bags charged with soft blocks of furry mycelium filled the space. Some were white, some off-yellow, some a pale orange. If the fans filtering the air had stopped, I felt that I might have heard the crackling of millions of miles of mycelium running through its food. Upon harvest, the bags of mycelium were extracted in large barrels full of alcohol to produce the cure for the bees. Like so many radical mycological solutions, it is still uncertain; the first tender steps toward the possibility of mutually assured survival, symbiosis in its earliest infancy.
Read a new Nautilus interview with Paul Stamets here: “You experience the three-dimensionality of the universe. The air breathes. Rocks speak.”
Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. A keen brewer and fermenter, Merlin is fascinated by the relationships that arise between humans and more-than-human organisms. Find out more at merlinsheldrake.com, and follow him on Twitter @MerlinSheldrake or Instagram @merlin.sheldrake.
From the book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. Copyright © 2020 by Merlin Sheldrake. Reprinted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.