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Can Mushrooms Rescue the Gulf?

Researcher Paul Stamets says mushrooms can eat oil spills and rid the world of toxics–and he’s got proof.

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Mushroom Will Bryson

Photo by Will Bryson

More Mushrooms, Less Waste

Eating oil turns out to be just one of many practical applications for fungi. Stamets has demonstrated that they offer cheap and sustainable solutions for encouraging the healthy growth of plants, controlling insect pests, filtering farm waste, and creating medicines to treat human diseases.

Several of Stamets’ projects take advantage of the symbiotic relationships that exist between fungi and plants. Certain fungi intertwine themselves with the roots of plants, taking nutrients from them while protecting the plants from attack. Fungi can also make a plant hundreds or even thousands of times more efficient at gathering water and minerals from the soil.

Stamets’ company, Fungi Perfecti, manufactures an alternative to fertilizers called Mycogrow, which some organic farmers say provides them with huge and healthy crops without creating pollution.

Far from being the poisonous or dirty pests many people think they are, fungi provide some of the cleanest solutions to our environmental problems.

Another product based on the same principle is the LifeBox, a package made from recycled cardboard that contains the seeds of common trees paired with the spores of specific fungi that partner with them in old-growth forests. You use the box for shipping; the recipient tears it up and buries it in the ground. A cobweb-like growth of white mycelia will appear on the surface a few days later. This fungal network “mothers the seed nursery by providing nutrients and water,” according to the project’s website, “thus protecting the growing trees from disease, drought, and famine.”

The LifeBox project will utilize human networks as well as mycelial ones. Just as this article appears in print, a new app will be released for iPhone, Droid, and iPad that allows users to post the exact location and species of their Lifebox grove and see where others have been planted, too. It’s a “blending of nature-based and computer-based technologies,” Stamets says. “We need to take the best of each.”

Stamets-Mushroom.jpgVideo: 6 ways mushrooms can save the world

His company is also developing ­fungus-based pesticides that kill ants and termites, as well as a technology that allows sacks of mycelia to filter toxins and dangerous bacteria from farm waste. In each case, the “mycotechnology” allows people to do an everyday task, but with a drastically reduced footprint of toxins and wastes. Far from being the poisonous or dirty pests many people think they are, Stamets says, fungi provide some of the cleanest solutions to our environmental problems.


Mycelia Move to the Mainstream

If you find these ideas fascinating, you are not alone. There is a growing community of people who share Stamets’ confidence in the ability of fungi to help save the planet. They include organic farmers who use his company’s plant-growth enhancements and farm-waste abatement technologies, mushroom growers who attend his sought-after seminars (sold out through November 2010), and parents who use his LifeBoxes and growing kits to teach their kids about fungi.

They also include leaders of media and culture. In 2008, Stamets was named a “Green-O-Vator” by National Geographic Adventure magazine and one of the 50 Visionaries of the Year by Utne Reader. He recently shared a stage with rocker Sting at an event about social change, and he appeared in Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The 11th Hour, a documentary about the need for a radical shift in how humans treat the earth.

Does this mean we can expect to see bins of mushrooms breaking down waste in the Gulf sometime soon? For better or worse, that depends on the decisions of the Coast Guard and British Petroleum officials currently in charge of the cleanup. While they might not be ready to recruit the fungal kingdom just yet, Stamets and the workers at his company are hard at work to make sure that the solutions are ready to go as soon as opportunity appears.


MUGtrimarco.jpgJames Trimarco is a writer and activist based in New York City, and a consulting editor for YES!  He wrote this article for the Fall 2010 issue, A Resilient Community.

Header photo by Ron Wolf

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