Mushrooms will save the world

Star Trek’s secret weapon: a scientist with a mushroom fetish bent on saving the planet
Researcher says he’s just a ‘messenger’ for the mushrooms
By Yvette Brend, CBC News Posted: Dec 24, 2017 7:00 AM PT Last Updated: Dec 24, 2017 11:40 AM PT

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist, Jack Webster City Mike award winner 2017. @ybrend

On Star Trek: Discovery, the character Lieutenant Paul Stamets is an “astromycologist” — a mushroom expert in outer space who is passionate about the power of fungi.

Stamets is actually named after a real U.S. scientist who spends his downtime tramping through the forests of B.C.’s Cortes Island. The 62-year-old looks nothing like his blond-haired TV counterpart, but he’s just as enamoured with fungi.

In fact, he believes mushrooms can help save the planet.

Over 40 years, Stamets has pioneered methods for using mushrooms to do everything from clean up oil spills to save disappearing bees by boosting their immune systems.

But he’s just as excited about Star Trek’s potential to inspire people to create some of the science they see presented in screen — even if it does seem a bit fantastic. So were flip phones when people first saw Spock’s, he said.

“What I love about Star Trek is that we can actually set the stage for science fact,” said Stamets.


Science behind the fiction
Amory Lovins, chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, said Stamets’ genius lies in finding extraordinary uses for mushrooms, often creating applications that read more like a Gene Roddenberry script than reality.

In a 2008 TED Talk, Stamets explained how fungi can be used to “save the world” by cleaning polluted soil, replacing toxic insecticides and even treating viruses.

He invented paradigm-shifting uses for fungal extracts, including some that have the ability to boost immunity and fight virus. Stamets discovered that extracts from a rare, gnarled mushroom found in old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest protect against smallpox.

It caught the attention of the U.S. defence department’s BioShield program for testing at a top-security lab, where it saw some success. The military fears smallpox could be used as a biological weapon by terrorists.

It’s not the first time the military turned to mushrooms. In the pursuit of creating so-called superhumans, the military has used Navy SEALs to test Cordyceps sinensis fungus (or Mysterious Caterpillar Fungus), which is used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines to help increase physical stamina and fight antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Eventually, Stamets’ research and reputation piqued the interest of Hollywood.

The writers of Star Trek: Discovery were stuck in a plot rut, and decided to call Stamets for help. They were so inspired by the nature and breadth of his work, they wanted to incorporate it into the show’s narrative — and created the TV character Paul Stamets, portrayed by actor Anthony Rapp.

Paul Stamets cabin on Cortes Island
Long before Stamets worked with Star Trek, he built a dream getaway on Cortes Island in homage, in part, to the Starship Enterprise. (Bill Linton)

Stamets said he was thrilled when the producers came calling, because he also happens to be a Trekkie. In fact, his B.C. cabin was built as a homage to the Starship Enterprise, and he sent the writers photos.

“They were blown away — roaring with laughter,” said Stamets.

Other television shows have incorporated his name and work into their plots, including The Invasion (with Nicole Kidman) and Hannibal, where the Stamets character is a serial killer who grows mushrooms on dead victims in his backyard.

Stamets was impressed that Star Trek producers asked his permission to use his name and have made mushrooms such a key part of the show. He told the writers about the giant prototaxites plants that grew 420 million years ago, and described how fungi could help create a habitable environment for humans. Stamets said fungi were the first organisms on land and created a base for soil, plants and eventually animals.

“They are the foundation of the food web. Thirty per cent of the soil underneath your feet is composed of fungal mass, he said.

His transformation
Stamets believes references to his work in pop culture will help people stop ignoring fungi.

His own obsession with fungi began with a harrowing experience at age 19, when he ate an entire bag of magic mushrooms, which contain a hallucinogen. While high, he climbed a tree in a violent thunderstorm and got stuck. He admits he ingested too many mushrooms.

“I knew nothing about dosing then,” said Stamets.

Paul Stamets and Anthony Rapp
The real Stamets poses with his on-screen avatar. (Fungi Perfecti/Facebook)

But he said the frightening experience had an unintended benefit. It cured his childhood stutter and launched his quest to understand fungi, which led to subsequent epiphanies.

“I’m just a messenger for the mycelium,” he said, referring to the network of fungal filaments under the soil that form the largest organism on earth. Mycelium can be found in every forest, but the biggest one he knows of is a massive, 970-hectare mass — bigger than 1,600 football fields — in an Oregon forest.

Stamets believes this network “communicates,” not unlike a fungal internet. The filaments transfer nutrients and information, and even sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxins.

“We walk upon these mycelial landscapes,” he said. “Literally underneath our feet are the solutions that are so desperately needed today, and yet we are Neanderthals with nuclear weapons.”

Eric Rasmussen, a Stanford-educated medical doctor, describes Stamets as a “savant” and helped him research the use of fungi to clean up radioactive waste.

“A lot of humanity doesn’t care that much for fungus,” said Rasmussen, the CEO of Infinitum Humanitarian Systems in Seattle. “We worry about them and slice them and drown them in butter, but we don’t really understand what they are doing.”

Mushroom vanguard
This fall, Stamets spoke at a California conference about “microdosing,” a trend among some athletes and computer coders that involves ingesting tiny amounts of the psychedelic substances in magic mushroom to improve performance by enhancing perception.

Fungi that looks like the Star ship enterprise
Stamets was eager to see fungi featured in Star Trek: Discovery because he believes raising awareness about the lowly mushroom may help save the planet. (Fungi Perfecti/Facebook)

But Stamets would prefer to talk about bees. He said watching them drink liquid off fungi twigged him to the immune-boosting power of mushrooms.

“Things I had spoken about for a number of years are now getting a lot of traction,” said Stamets, who is the founder of Fungi Perfecti, a company that markets everything from garden products and mushroom supplements to a children’s book.

Stamets is thrilled Star Trek will ignite interest in his underfunded field, but he’s quiet about one thing.

Ask him to reveal upcoming plot twists and suddenly, he’s as silent as a shiitake.

Trouble Deciding How to Think on Canadian Issues? No worries: from now on, we’ll tell you what you’re allowed to think. Part One

Julie Payette’s transgression is more serious than some suppose. In a speech last week, she celebrated secularism and science over faith and superstition in tones so derisive that the Conservative Leader protested and the Prime Minister rose to her defence, which only made things worse.

In presenting herself as an enlightened governor-general, did Ms. Payette inadvertently cast herself as a Liberal governor-general? If the next election produces an unstable House, can we count on her to rule impartially on who should be asked to form a government, or whether and when to accept a recommendation to prorogue or dissolve Parliament?

The governor-general exists to resolve such impasses. With her remarks on science and superstition, Ms. Payette has made it harder to credibly fill that role.

Read more: Governor-General 101: Don’t insult Canadians

We don’t need to rehash exactly what the Governor-General said last Wednesday, because it wasn’t her opinions that got her into trouble so much as her tone. “Can you believe that still, today, in learned societies and houses of government? …” and “that we are still debating and still questioning …” and “so many people, I’m sure you know them, still believe, want to believe …” Here was a Governor-General mocking those who do not share her world view.

In rising to her defence, Mr. Trudeau actually deepened the hole.

“We are a government grounded in science,” he told reporters. Ms. Payette “has never hidden away her passion for science … and I applaud the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth,” he added.

With those comments, Mr. Trudeau allied the Liberal Party with the Governor-General, in essence saying both celebrate the power of science over superstition.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, not wanting to be seen criticizing the Governor-General directly, instead criticized Mr. Trudeau for coming to her defence.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister will not support Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion,” he said on Facebook.

 So now we have the Liberals: We are the party of reason and the scientific method and the Governor-General is with us. And the Conservatives: We are the party that respects rights of all people to worship as they choose without being judged – in particular, by the Prime Minister and the Governor-General.

A stark divide. A wedge issue, even. What on Earth was the GG thinking?

These are early days. We should assume that Ms. Payette received unsound advice, or failed to follow the advice she received. Someone in the Prime Minister’s Office is no doubt having a quiet word with someone at Rideau Hall, so that this mistake is not repeated.

But Ms. Payette needs to get the hang of this job, quickly. Yes, the next election is two years away, but consider: What if the NAFTA talks fail and Mr. Trudeau decides on a snap election to obtain a mandate for whatever follows? What if the voters return a hung Parliament?

After the BC Liberals were defeated in the legislature in the wake of last May’s election in that province, Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon rejected Christy Clark’s advice to dissolve the legislature, and instead invited NDP Leader John Horgan to form a government.

Throughout those tense days, no one questioned Ms. Guichon’s impartiality. If Ms. Payette is forced to make a difficult choice when the House meets after the next election, will all Canadians trust her impartiality?

The Governor-General speaks for everyone – believer and non-believer, people of science and people of faith and people of both. She must represent all, regardless of what she might think of some.

Julie Payette should be very careful with what she says and how she says it from here on in.

Governor-General Julie Payette takes aim at bad science(THE CANADIAN PRESS)