“I love a challenge, and saving the Earth is probably a good one,” pioneering mycologist Paul Stamets said to open this TED talk. In the video, Stamets summarizes some of the amazing facts that he has discovered during his more than four decades of experience working and experimenting with fungi.
Note that when he speaks of mycelium, he means the underground, thread-like body of fungus — the mushrooms that push out of the ground are actually the fruit. Mycelium can be amazingly dense, with up to eight miles of cells in a single cubic inch of soil, and it branches out in networks that resemble human brain neurons.
Fungi were the first organisms to leave the ocean 1.3 billion years ago, and now Stamets believes they can help save the planet from human devastation.
Here are six ways that mushrooms can save the world:
1. Cleaning Up Oil Spills: Stamets laid some mycelium on an oil spill as part of an experiment to compare it with other solutions. The fungi absorbed the oil, broke the carbon hydrogen bonds and remanufactured it into carbohydrates. Soon, insects were attracted to the pile, then birds came to eat the insects, the birds dropped vegetation seeds and a new ecosystem was on its way. “Our pile became an oasis of life,” Stamets said. “The other piles were dead, dark and stinky.”
2. Absorbing Farm Pollution: Encouraged by the oil experiment, Stamets then created burlap sacs filled with debris and mycelium and placed them downstream of farms to filter runoff. “We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of coliforms,” he said, noting that in a few days the mushrooms had reduced the bacteria by 10,000 times.
3. Fighting off Disease: Stamets introduces a mushroom called agarikon. It lives only in old-growth forests, is thought to be extinct in Europe and is very rare in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. He worked to test the fungus with the Department of Defense and found that three strains are highly active against pox viruses and three are highly active against the flu. “I then think that we can make the argument that we should save the old-growth forest as a matter of national defense,” Stamets said.
4. Combating Insects: Termites, carpenter ants and other insects can be a scourge to people’s houses, and some fungus-based insecticides don’t work because the creatures know to avoid the spores. So Stamets developed a mycelium that didn’t produce spores and laid it down in his house. “The ants were attracted to the mycelium, because there’s no spores,” he said. “They gave it to the queen. One week later, I had no sawdust piles whatsoever.” Then, mushrooms popped out of the insect carcasses, which did have spores and warned other ants to avoid the house altogether.
5. Re-Greening The Planet: One of Stamets’ inventions is the life box, which includes fungi spores that you add to soil, water and cardboard. That creates a rich environment to plant other seeds, like corns, beans, squash and onions for refugee populations. You can also use tree seeds to jump-start a new forest. “You end up growing — potentially — an old-growth forest from a cardboard box,” he says.
6. Creating A Sustainable Fuel Source: Perhaps the most remarkable promise of mycelium is the potential to move us away from fossil fuel in a sustainable, earth-friendly way. Instead of wasting energy by going directly from cellulose to ethanol, he uses mycelium as an intermediary, allowing the fungus to naturally convert cellulose into fungal sugars. “I think that we need to be econologically intelligent about the generation of fuels,” Stamets said. “So, we build the carbon banks on the planet, renew the soils.”
“These are a species that we need to join with,” he concludes. “I think engaging mycelium can help save the world.”