In this TED 2011 talk, mushroom biologist, Paul Stamets, talks about the antimicrobial properties of fungi, how they can be used as potent insecticides, and how they may help boost the human immune system. Speaker bio here
Paul Stamets – Mycologist
I love a challenge, and saving the Earth is probably a good one. We all know the Earth is in trouble. We have now entered in the 6X, the sixth major extinction on this planet. I often wondered, if there was a United Organization of Organisms — otherwise known as “UOO” — and every organism had a right to vote, would we be voted on the planet, or off the planet? I think that vote is occurring right now.
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.
Dusty and I, we like to say, on Sunday, this is where we go to church. I’m in love with the old-growth forest, and I’m a patriotic American because we have those. Most of you are familiar with Portobello mushrooms. And frankly, I face a big obstacle. When I mention mushrooms to somebody, they immediately think Portobellos or magic mushrooms, their eyes glaze over, and they think I’m a little crazy. So, I hope to pierce that prejudice forever with this group. We call it mycophobia, the irrational fear of the unknown, when it comes to fungi.
Mushrooms are very fast in their growth. Day 21, day 23, day 25. 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 share in common the same pathogens. Fungi don’t like to rot from bacteria, and so our best antibiotics come from fungi. But here is a mushroom that’s past its prime. After they sporulate, they do rot. But I propose to you that the sequence of microbes that occur on rotting mushrooms are essential for the health of the forest. They give rise to the trees, they create the debris fields that feed the mycelium.
And so we see a mushroom here sporulating. And the spores are germinating, and the mycelium forms and goes underground. In a single cubic inch of soil, there can be more than eight miles of these cells. My foot is covering approximately 300 miles of mycelium.
This is photomicrographs from Nick Read and Patrick Hickey. And notice that as the mycelium grows, it conquers territory and then it begins the net. I’ve been a scanning electron microscopist for many years, I have thousands of electron micrographs, and when I’m staring at the mycelium, I realize that they are microfiltration membranes. 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.
I first proposed, in the early 1990s, that mycelium is Earth’s natural Internet. When you look at the mycelium, they’re highly branched. And if there’s one branch that is broken, then very quickly, because of the nodes of crossing — Internet engineers maybe call them hot points — there are alternative pathways for channeling nutrients and information. 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. So, I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven, biologically successful model. The Earth invented the computer Internet for its own benefit, and we now, being the top organism on this planet, are trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.
Going way out, dark matter conforms to the same mycelial archetype. I believe matter begets life; life becomes single cells; single cells become strings; strings become chains; chains network. And this is the paradigm that we see throughout the universe.
Most of you may not know that fungi were the first organisms to come to land. They came to land 1.3 billion years ago, and plants followed several hundred million years later. How is that possible? It’s possible because the 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.
This was first discovered in 1859. This is a photograph by Franz Hueber. This photograph’s taken 1950s in Saudi Arabia. 420 million years ago, this organism existed. It was called Prototaxites. Prototaxites, laying down, was about three feet tall. The tallest plants on Earth at that time were less than two feet. Dr. Boyce, at the University of Chicago, published an article in the Journal of Geology this past year determining that Prototaxites was a giant fungus, a giant mushroom. Across the landscapes of Earth were dotted these giant mushrooms. All across most land masses. And these existed for tens of millions of years.
Now, we’ve had several extinction events, and as we march forward — 65 million years ago — most of you know about it — we had an asteroid impact. The Earth was struck by an asteroid, a huge amount of debris was jettisoned into the atmosphere. Sunlight was cut off, and fungi inherited the Earth. Those organisms that paired with fungi were rewarded, because fungi do not need light. More recently, at Einstein University, they just determined that fungi use radiation as a source of energy, much like plants use light. So, the prospect of fungi existing on other planets elsewhere, I think, is a forgone conclusion, at least in my own mind.
The largest organism in the world is in Eastern Oregon. I couldn’t miss it. It was 2,200 acres in size: 2,200 acres in size, 2,000 years old. The largest organism on the planet is a mycelial mat, one cell wall thick. How is it that this organism can be so large, and yet be one cell wall thick, whereas we have five or six skin layers that protect us? The mycelium, in the right conditions, produces a mushroom — it bursts through with such ferocity that it can break asphalt. We were involved with several experiments. I’m going to show you six, if I can, solutions for helping to save the world. Battelle Laboratories and I joined up in Bellingham, Washington. There were four piles saturated with diesel and other petroleum waste: one was a control pile; one pile was treated with enzymes; one pile was treated with bacteria; and our pile we inoculated with mushroom mycelium. The mycelium absorbs the oil. The mycelium is producing enzymes — peroxidases — that break carbon-hydrogen bonds. These are the same bonds that hold hydrocarbons together. So, the mycelium becomes saturated with the oil, and then, when we returned six weeks later, all the tarps were removed, all the other piles were dead, dark and stinky. We came back to our pile, it was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms, and the color changed to a light form. The enzymes remanufactured the hydrocarbons into carbohydrates — fungal sugars.
Some of these mushrooms are very happy mushrooms. They’re very large. They’re showing how much nutrition that they could’ve obtained. But something else happened, which was an epiphany in my life. They sporulated, the spores attract insects, the insects laid eggs, eggs became larvae. Birds then came, bringing in seeds, and our pile became an oasis of life. Whereas the other three piles were dead, dark and stinky, and the PAH’s — the aromatic hydrocarbons — went from 10,000 parts per million to less than 200 in eight weeks. The last image we don’t have. The entire pile was a green berm of life. These are gateway species, vanguard species that open the door for other biological communities.
So I invented burlap sacks, bunker spawn — and putting the mycelium — using storm blown debris, you can take these burlap sacks and put them downstream from a farm that’s producing E. coli, or other wastes, or a factory with chemical toxins, and it leads to habitat restoration. So, we set up a site in Mason County, Washington, and we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of coliforms. And I’ll show you a graph here. This is a logarithmic scale, 10 to the eighth power. There’s more than a 100 million colonies per gram, and 10 to the third power is around 1,000. In 48 hours to 72 hours, these three mushroom species reduced the amount of coliform bacteria 10,000 times. Think of the implications. This is a space-conservative method that uses storm debris — and we can guarantee that we will have storms every year.
So, this one mushroom, in particular, has drawn our interest over time. This is my wife Dusty, with a mushroom called Fomitopsis officinalis — Agarikon. It’s a mushroom exclusive to the old-growth forest that Dioscorides first described in 65 A.D. as a treatment against consumption. This mushroom grows in Washington State, Oregon, northern California, British Columbia, now thought to be extinct in Europe. May not seem that large — let’s get closer. This is extremely rare fungus. Our team — and we have a team of experts that go out — we went out 20 times in the old-growth forest last year. We found one sample to be able to get into culture.