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Paul Stamets - Bioremediation with Fungi

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 11, 2007 1:01 pm    Post subject: Paul Stamets - Bioremediation with Fungi Reply with quote


Paul stamet has found that fungi Mycelium is the keystone mechanism for the remediation to create a domino effect that can cause the break down of toxic waste.


Paul Stamets How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Useing mycelium to revamp the pesticide industry.
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2007 8:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Fungal Intelligence and Bioremediation
by Paul Stamets

My wife and I live in the southern reaches of the Puget Sound where we have a farm. I moved there in 1984, and started gardening with gourmet mushrooms. We are dedicated hikers. We go into the Olympics, into the old-growth forest, which we consider to be our church, and collect mushrooms. We clone mushrooms out of the wild in a way that has a very low impact. I believe it's very important to save the phenotypes of rare species, especially from endangered ecosystems. So we go into the mountains, usually for three days to a week. Dusty is an expert in plant identification, and I know mushrooms well, so once we get into the high country, we can feed ourselves for days. Some of the mushrooms we find in the old-growth forests are quite unique and have promising properties. For example, one species, Rozites caperata or gypsy mushroom, has been found to have a novel antiviral agent called RC-183. There's now great interest in the medical community and a very deliberate search for new antiviral medicines coming from fungi is occurring worldwide.
Paul Stamets

I have spent many years in front of the scanning electron microscope studying spore structures and the properties of fungi. I have thousands of electron micrographs. Mushrooms produce slews of antibiotics simply because they don't like to rot, but after they sporulate, they give themselves up, and bacteria and all sorts of other organisms use them as a food source. Then the mushroom begins to rot, and spores germinate after being produced from the gills. The mushroom just melts into a mycelial mat, which is a remarkable type of structure composed of very thin but incredibly extensive filaments. Looking at mycelium after mycelium under the scanning electron microscope for years, I began to realize that these mycelia look like externalized neurological networks. Four hundred and sixty-five million years ago, we shared a common ancestry with fungi. Fungi chose the path of digesting nutrients externally. We chose the path of encircling our nutrients, so we have multiple layers of skin. The mushroom mycelium only has one cell wall between it and a very hostile external environment, but its membrane is full of receptor sites that interact constantly with its surroundings.

I have come to believe that mycelial mats, found nearly everywhere underfoot in our planet's soil, form a network that is sentient, intelligent and responsive. It's been here as long as we have, and it responds to catastrophia. The complexity of the fungal genome helps protect environments from invasive diseases and it helps sustain other biological communities. A group of Japanese researchers recently demonstrated the existence of what they called "cellular intelligence." They put a slime mold into a maze and gave it two food sources. The slime mold split itself and chose the shortest distance possible, navigating throughout the maze as directly as possible to both food sources. I believe there is growing evidence to confirm that cellular networks such as mycelial structures do indeed possess a form of intelligence.

The largest organisms on the planet are most likely mycelial mats. There's a 1200-acre one in southern Washington, and the largest in the world is probably a 2400-acre mat in Oregon, caused by a honey mushroom species called Armillaria ostoyae. These structures form in the soil at the tops of the mountains and slowly kill off trees, then lightning strikes and causes fires. These mushrooms are meadow makers. I've wondered for years why there are meadows all over the Cascades and the Olympics well below tree line. This type of mushroom mycelium, I believe, is the main engine creating these meadows. That 2400-acre mat is about 2200 years old, and it's killed the old-growth forest cover above it at least four times. In doing that it builds soil. These fungi are grand molecular disassemblers that break down plant cellulose into simpler forms that are then used as nutrients by other plant communities. They thicken and enrich the soil, and that leads to downstream increases in biological diversity.

A mushroom mycelium sweats enzymes and antibiotics that are customized tools it uses to cope with the different challenges it faces in its natural environment, so it's able to adapt to changes and disturbances. These are extremely adaptable organisms. I have been struck by how the computer Internet is very structurally similar to a mycelial mat. There is no point-specific central location on the computer Internet or in a mycelial mass where you can fatally harm the entire organism. Its decentralized organization permits it to react to disturbances in the environment in an exquisite way and to share information along its whole network very effectively. Many forms in nature and the universe seem to share this type of mycelial architecture and certain recurrent shapes, at all levels of size, from spiraling galaxies interspersed amongst the cobweb of dark matter to hurricanes and mushrooms. The mycelial structure may be a core archetypal pattern in our universe.

Mycelial mats have crucial ecological functions. They capture nutrients and silts and bacteria and organic matter and digest them. They transport water and rehydrate the soil, and they grow in an astonishingly wide range of environments. You can grow mushrooms on chairs. They love everything, it seems, especially oyster mushrooms - you can even grow oyster mushrooms on old soggy money. We do a lot of work with oyster mushrooms. We're part of a research program funded by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) at San Francisco General Hospital to treat HIV patients with oyster mushrooms. They are promising because they contain glycolproteins, which have antiviral properties but don't interfere with lipid metabolism in the liver the way protease inhibitors do. These are the first clinical trial on mushrooms in America.

Oyster mushrooms can do other amazing things. They produce enzymes that can break carbon-hydrogen bonds, so we were involved in a series of research experiments to determine if we could use oyster mushrooms to clean up hydrocarbon-saturated soils after oil spills. We participated in a competitive trial against four other companies that used more conventional remediation technologies in Bellingham, Washington, to break down diesel-contaminated soil. Each company was given a pile of contaminated soil to work with. We mixed our oyster mushrooms in the contaminated soil, and four weeks later everyone came back to look at each pile. The bacterial people still had a stinky pile; the people using enzymes still had a stinky pile; the company using chemical remedies had a stinky, lifeless pile. They came back to our pile and pulled back the tarp, and it was covered by hundreds of oyster mushrooms. The oyster mushrooms were perfectly edible - they were delicious. And something really significant happened. Not only were the mushrooms huge, which told me they were happy mushrooms, but, after the oyster mushrooms sporulated and began to decompose, they attracted insects. There's an intimate relationship between insects and fungi.

Bacteria started breaking down the mushrooms, and then flies laid eggs and larvae developed, and then pretty soon birds came after the larvae, so our pile was the only pile that became an oasis of life. And we broke down the PAHs, which are toxic carbon compounds, from ten thousand to less than two hundred parts per million in less than eight weeks, and then other plant communities took root. I think these saprophytic fungi open up the door and create a domino effect leading to habitat restoration. They are extremely powerful organisms. They can be our allies, and I believe they are intelligent. We need to engage them. They're all around us. In my view, they want us to use them to remediate many of the problems we are causing to the environment.

After our success in these experiments, we started getting involved with Amazon Watch and other groups to use fungal strategies to break down oil spills in Ecuador. A hairdresser in this area has a patent for soaking up oil with hair, which is very inexpensive to collect and seems to work very well. We started to experiment with inoculating this hair soaked with oil with oyster mushrooms, and it seems promising. We're mobilizing a group to go down to Ecuador to try it in the field: using hair to soak up the oil and then breaking down the oil by injecting oyster mushrooms. I've also been working on other fungal-based techniques to clean up a variety of other types of polluted sites or to minimize contamination. I've created little pods using burlap bags inoculated with mushroom spores that I can place like sand bags around hog farms, chicken farms or any type of estuary environment where one wants to ameliorate the impact of downstream contamination.

Another very promising avenue of our research is the potential of fungal antibiotic compounds to neutralize the dreaded 0157 E. coli bacteria. I discovered that Fomes fomentarius mushroom (the same species found on the famous "iceman" in the Alps) seems to send out anti-bacterial crystalline messenger entities that seek out and disintegrate the E-coli. The creeping mycelium seems to be able to pick up chemical scent trails and to track down and destroy it. There is no cure for E. coli, so this discovery could be very promising.

Some of the fungi I was working with were tested, and, to my surprise, seemed to be effective in the decomposition of some chemical and biological warfare weapons. One of my strains from the old-growth forest actually seemed to be effective in neutralizing highly toxic VX nerve gas. VX is a very potent nerve toxin that Saddam Hussein did use, and once it's put into an environment, that area becomes inhospitable to all vertebrates for hundreds of years. It does not break down. This gives us yet one more argument for saving the old-growth forest: it may be a matter of national defense.

I've also been working with another very promising medicinal species, the turkey tail mushroom, and the Lancet recently published a clinical study using them for treating gastric cancer that got good results. The turkey tail also seems to have potential in breaking down PCBs. That would be remarkable indeed, if the same mushroom turned out to be both medically effective and a powerful cleanser of environmental toxins.

We grow about 250 species in our culture library, and we have commercialized about 25 species. One of our main missions is to go into endangered habitats and do mycological surveys and save as many species as possible before those habitats are destroyed. So many of these species are turning out to have incredibly important properties, both for medicine and remediation. We need these species now. If we end up losing our biodiversity and our fungal diversity, we are shortchanging future generations and depriving ourselves of critically important tools that we desperately need.

In many cases we are merely re-discovering ancient knowledge about mushrooms. Fomitopsis officinalis, a species that has been found to possess very strong anti-microbial properties, was first described by Dioscorides in 65 AD as a treatment against consumption, known now as tuberculosis and was also revered by the Haida people of the Pacific Northwest. The fact that these two radically different cultures thousands of miles apart independently prized this mushroom for its antimicrobial properties is certainly very interesting.

There are some mushrooms that we haven't been able to cultivate, that will only grow in the wild. One of them is one of the largest mushrooms in the world (five to six hundred pounds), Oxyporus nobilissimus (now known as Bridgeoporus nobilissimus). It lives exclusively in the old-growth forest in our region. It is definitely the largest mushroom in North America. It grows exclusively in the old-growth forest in Washington and Oregon, and at only six known locations.

I've also been working on creating fungal pesticides, and I think I've made a very important discovery. I haven't spoken about it before because my patent was pending, but now I can, as the patent office has approved my first patent, Patent #6660290 with many divisional patents pending. The fascinating and complex relationships of insects to fungi are being increasingly studied by specialists. Termitomyces robustus, for example, is a mushroom that is cultivated by termites. Cordyceps sinensis is a very important medicinal mushroom that parasitizes caterpillars. Dow Chemical, Monsanto and lots of other pesticide companies have invested a lot of money researching the use of fungal spores to infect and kill insects because they know every insect species in the world is parasitized by one fungus or another, but I think their approach has been too generic and broad. They've tried to build bait traps using fungal spores, but the insects aren't stupid. They know the plague when they smell it, so this research hasn't been all that successful. I approached the question a little differently because I believe in fungal intelligence, and I believe that nature is intelligent, so when I heard that the insects were avoiding these spore traps because they sensed these fungi were pathogens, I surmised that the fungi know that the insects know, but the fungi would attract the insects prior to sporulation, and be target specific.

So I performed an experiment at my own pitiful house, which was basically being eaten by carpenter ants. I felt the key was to find the precise fungal species that has evolved as a parasite to a specific insect (and therefore has developed chemical compounds that attract that specific insect), and, crucially, to entice the insects into eating its mycelium in its pre-sporulating phase. I developed a strain to use with carpenter ants and put out mycelium of that strain onto grain and left it out. The carpenter ants swarmed all over it and took it to their queen as ambrosia food. The queen then distributed it throughout the nest. The nest then was infected with the mycelium as a parasitizing narcotic, a biological Trojan horse. When the mycelium sporulated, the spores grew inside all the ants and killed them. My house was free of carpenter ants because the moldy carcasses repelled future invasions. We've tried this approach now with eight insect species, and it's worked on all of them. If I'm right, every insect in the world can be attracted. This technique uses specific fungi at the pre-sporulating stage as feeding stimulants, attractants and delayed-release pathogens. If further research confirms this approach, it could help our society steer away from toxic pesticides to a more ecologically rational approach for controlling pesticides.

The main thing I want to drive home is that I am convinced that nature is intelligent and that fungi are intelligent. If we can open our minds to that possibility and learn to think that way, we can engage with them not as tools, but as remarkable friends and allies who can offer us invaluable help in addressing some of our most critical ecological and medical crises.

This article is taken from a Bioneers presentation given in 2003

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2007 8:36 am    Post subject: How mushrooms will save the world Reply with quote

How mushrooms will save the world
Cleaning up toxic spills, stopping poison-gas attacks, and curing deadly diseases: Fungus king Paul Stamets says there's no limit to what his spores can do.

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By Linda Baker

Nov. 25, 2002 | Once you've heard "renaissance mycologist" Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms, you'll never look at the world -- not to mention your backyard -- in the same way again. The author of two seminal textbooks, "The Mushroom Cultivator" and "Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms," Stamets runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned gourmet and medicinal mushroom business in Shelton, Wash. His convictions about the expanding role that mushrooms will play in the development of earth-friendly technologies and medicines have led him to collect and clone more than 250 strains of wild mushrooms -- which he stores in several on- and off-site gene libraries.

Until recently, claims Stamets, mushrooms were largely ignored by the mainstream medical and environmental establishment. Or, as he puts it, "they suffered from biological racism." But Stamets is about to thrust these higher fungi into the 21st century. In collaboration with several public and private agencies, he is pioneering the use of "mycoremediation" and "mycofiltration" technologies. These involve the cultivation of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites, improve ecological and human health, and in a particularly timely bit of experimentation, break down chemical warfare agents possessed by Saddam Hussein.

"Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet and the vanguard species in habitat restoration," says Stamets, who predicts that bioremediation using fungi will soon be a billion-dollar industry. "If we just stay at the crest of the mycelial wave, it will take us into heretofore unknown territories that will be just magnificent in their implications."

A former logger turned scanning-electron microscopist, Stamets is not your typical scientist -- a role he obviously relishes. "Some people think I'm a mycological heretic, some people think I'm a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I'm crazy," he says cheerfully. His discussions of mushroom form and function are sprinkled with wide-ranging -- and provocative -- mycological metaphors, among them his belief that "fungal intelligence" provides a framework for understanding everything from string theory in modern physics to the structure of the Internet.

In a recent interview, Stamets also spoke mysteriously of a yet-to-be-unveiled project he calls the "life box," his plan for "regreening the planet" using fungi. "It's totally fun, totally revolutionary. It's going to put smiles on the faces of grandmothers and young children," he says. "And it's going to be the biggest story of the decade."

Statements like those make it tempting to dismiss Stamets as either chock-full of hubris or somewhat deluded. But while many academic mycologists tend to question both his style and his methods, Stamets' status as an innovative entrepreneur is hard to dispute. "Paul has a solid grounding in cultivation and has expanded from that base to show there are other ways of using and cultivating mushrooms than just for food," says Gary Lincoff, author of "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms." "These are relatively new ideas ... but Paul's got a large spread where he can have experiments going on under his control. And he's getting big-name people to back him."

An advisor and consultant to the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School and a 1998 recipient of the Collective Heritage Institute's Bioneers Award, Stamets has made converts out of more than one researcher in the mainstream medical and environmental communities.

"He's the most creative thinker I know," says Dr. Donald Abrams, the assistant director of the AIDS program at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Abrams says he became interested in the medicinal properties of mushrooms after hearing one of Stamets' lectures. Stamets is now a co-investigator on a grant proposal Abrams is authoring on the anti-HIV properties of oyster mushrooms.

Jack Word, former manager of the marine science lab at Battelle Laboratories in Sequim, Wash., calls Stamets "a visionary." Stamets takes bigger, faster leaps than institutional science, acknowledges Word, who, along with Stamets and several other Battelle researchers, is an applicant on a pending mycoremediation patent. "But most of what Paul sees has eventually been accepted by outside groups. He definitely points us in the right direction."

Although mycoremediation sounds "Brave New World"-ish, the concept behind it is decidedly low tech: think home composting, not genetic engineering. Most gardeners know that a host of microorganisms convert organic material such as rotting vegetables, decaying leaves and coffee grounds into the nutrient-rich soil required for plant growth. Fungi play a key role in this process. In fact, one of their primary roles in the ecosystem is decomposition. (Hence the killer-fungus scenario of many a science fiction novel, not to mention the moldy bread and bath tiles that are the bane of modern existence.)

The same principle is at work in mycoremediation. "We just have a more targeted approach," says Stamets. "And choosing the species [of fungi] that are most effective is absolutely critical to the success of the project."

Fungal decomposition is the job of the mycelium, a vast network of underground cells that permeate the soil. (The mushroom itself is the fruit of the mycelium.) Now recognized as the largest biological entities on the planet, with some individual mycelial mats covering more than 20,000 acres, these fungal masses secrete extra cellular enzymes and acids that break down lignin and cellulose, the two main building blocks of plant fiber, which are formed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen.

As it turns out, such chains are similar enough to the base structure of all petroleum products, pesticides, and herbicides so as to make it possible for fungi to break them down as well. A couple of years ago Stamets partnered with Battelle, a major player in the bioremediation industry, on an experiment conducted on a site owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation in Bellingham. Diesel oil had contaminated the site, which the mycoremediation team inoculated with strains of oyster mycelia that Stamets had collected from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Two other bioremediation teams, one using bacteria, the other using engineered bacteria, were also given sections of the contaminated soil to test.

Lo and behold. After four weeks, oyster mushrooms up to 12 inches in diameter had formed on the mycoremediated soil. After eight weeks, 95 percent of the hydrocarbons had broken down, and the soil was deemed nontoxic and suitable for use in WSDOT highway landscaping.

By contrast, neither of the bioremediated sites showed significant changes. "It's only hearsay," says Bill Hyde, Stamets' patent attorney, "but the bacterial remediation folks were crying because the [mycoremediation] worked so fast."

And that, says Stamets, was just the beginning of the end of the story. As the mushrooms rotted away, "fungus gnats" moved in to eat the spores. The gnats attracted other insects, which attracted birds, which brought in seeds.

Call it mycotopia.

"The fruit bodies become environmental plateaus for the attraction and succession of other biological communities," Stamets says. "Ours was the only site that became an oasis of life, leading to ecological restoration. That story is probably repeated all over the planet."

At Fungi Perfecti, a rural compound not far from Aberdeen, Wash., signs warn visitors not to enter without an appointment, and security cameras equipped with motion sensors guard several free-standing laboratories and a mushroom "grow" room. "My concerns are personal safety and commercial espionage," says Stamets, explaining that competitors and mycological hangers-on (not always a stable lot, apparently) have a tendency to show up unannounced.

Then there's the small problem of marketing a product associated in some people's minds with illegal substances. In the late 1970s, Stamets did pioneering research at Evergreen State College on psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms; he later published a definitive identification guide: "Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World."

"I drew the line a long time ago," says Stamets. "But I'll never be an apologist for that work. Everything I did was covered by a DEA license."

Today, Stamets spends much of his time cloning wild mushrooms. One of his innovations has been identifying strains of mushrooms with the ability to decompose certain toxins and adapting them to new environments. With the benefit of computer clean-room technology, Stamets introduces samples of toxins to mycelia growing on agar culture, then screens the samples to see if the mycelia are actually metabolizing the toxin. You can actually train the mycelia to grow on different media, he says.

As reported in Jane's Defence Weekly, one of Stamets' strains was found to "completely and efficiently degrade" chemical surrogates of VX and sarin, the potent nerve gases Saddam Hussein loaded into his warheads.

"We have a fungal genome that is diverse and present in the old-growth forests," says Stamets. "Hussein does not. If you look on the fungal genome as being soldier candidates protecting the U.S. as our host defense, not only for the ecosystem but for our population ... we should be saving our old-growth forests as a matter of national defense."

Stamets recently collaborated with WSDOT on another mycoremediation project designed to prevent erosion on decommissioned logging roads, which channel silt and pollutants toward stream beds where salmon are reproducing. In a process Stamets terms "mycofiltration," bark and wood chips were placed onto road surfaces and inoculated with fungi. The mycelial networks not only helped to build and retain soil but also filtered out pollutants and sediments and thus mitigated negative impacts on the watershed.

Stamets envisions myriad uses of mycofiltration, one of which involves bridging the gap between ecological and human health. It's been more than 70 years since Alexander Fleming discovered that the mold fungus penicillium was effective against bacteria. And yet, complains Stamets, nobody has paid much attention to the antiviral and antibiotic properties of mushrooms -- partly because Americans, unlike Asian cultures, think mushrooms are meant to be eaten, not prescribed. But with the emergence of multiple antibiotic resistance in hospitals, says Stamets, "a new game is afoot. The cognoscenti of the pharmaceuticals are now actively, and some secretly, looking at mushrooms for novel medicines."

Based on a recent study documenting the ability of a mushroom, Polyporus umbellatus, to completely inhibit the parasite that causes malaria, Stamets has come up with a mycofiltration approach to combating the disease. "We know that these fungi use other microorganisms as food sources," he says. "We know they're producing extracellular antibiotics that are effective against a pantheon of disease microorganisms. We can establish sheet composting using fungi that are specific against the malarial parasites. We can then go far in working with developing countries, in articulating mycelial mats specific to the disease vectors in which these things are being bred."

Stamets is currently shopping this idea around to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a front-runner in the effort to provide vaccinations in developing nations.

Mycotechnology is part of a larger trend toward the use of living systems to solve environmental problems and restore ecosystems. One of the best-known examples is John Todd's "Living Machine," which uses estuary ecosystems powered by sunlight to purify wastewater. "The idea that a total community is more efficient against contaminants than a single Pac Man bug is gaining acceptance," says Jack Word, now with MEC Analytical Systems, an environmental consulting firm. The key challenge facing mycotechnologies, he says, is securing funding to demonstrate their large-scale commercial feasibility.

Stamets is the Johnny Appleseed of mushrooms; he's spreading the gospel about the power of fungi to benefit the world. Issuing a call to mycological arms, Stamets urges gardeners to inoculate their backyards with mycorrhizae, fungi that enter into beneficial relationships with plant roots, and to grow shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms, among the very best decomposers and builders of soil.

But Stamets' vision doesn't stop there. In the conference room at Fungi Perfecti, with a 2,000-year-old carved mushroom stone from Guatemala hovering, shamanlike, over him, he explains his far-reaching theory of mycelial structure.

"Life exists throughout the cosmos and is a consequence of matter in the universe," he says. "Given that premise, when you look at the consequence of matter, and the simple premise of cellular reproduction, which forms a string, which forms a web, which then cross-hatches, what do you have? You have a neurological landscape that looks like mycelium. It's no accident that brain neurons and astrocytes are similarly arranged. It's no accident that the computer Internet is similarly arranged."

"I believe the earth's natural Internet is the mycelial network," he says. "That is the way of nature. If there is any destruction of the neurological landscape, the mycelial network does not die; it's able to adapt, recover and change. That's the whole basis of the computer Internet. The whole design patterns something that has been reproduced through nature and has been evolutionarily successful over millions of years."

The day after being interviewed in late October, Stamets called to point out a New York Times article on self-replicating universes, an article, he suggested, that reinforced his ideas about matter creating life and the generative power of mycelium. In describing the way universes might multiply, the reporter used the following felicitous metaphor: "For some cosmologists, that means universes sprouting from one another in an endless geometric progression, like mushrooms upon mushrooms upon mushrooms."

Where is Stamets going with all this? "I have a strategy for creating ecological footprints on other planets," he says. "By using a consortium of fungi and seeds and other microorganisms, you could actually seed other planets with little plops. You could actually start keystone species and go to creating vegetation on planets."

"I think that's totally doable."
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