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Mushrooms and Bioterrorism

by Tom Banse

Over the years, you've no doubt heard people make different argumentsfor protecting the remaining stands of old-growth forest in theNorthwest. Here's a new twist on the subject: saving ancient forests as a matter of national defense. The connection is a local mushroom that could be useful to counter a bioterrorism attack.

Tucked off a rural road in south Puget Sound lies a thriving mail-orderbusiness. Fungi Perfecti produces gourmet mushrooms and medicinalmushroom extracts in a complex of "growhouses" and laboratories.

Paul Stamets: "Shiitake! Lots of shiitake."

Paul Stamets is a bearded, bespectacled entrepreneur. He picks his way through damp and dimly lit shelves.

Paul Stamets: "Watch your step here. It's wet, high humidity environment "

Stamets knows from years of personal study that mushrooms produce potent antibiotics. His curiosity was spurred to a new level by theanthrax attacks on the East Coast late in 2001.

Paul Stamets: "So it came to me to be very clear that if you wanted to fight anthrax, tapping in to some of the antibiotical systems thatthese mushrooms produce would be logical first step."

Stamets says most people fail to take mushrooms seriously or appreciate their medicinal value. Bioterrorism may change that.

Paul Stamets: "I have tuned into the fact that mushrooms do not like torot. They are surrounded by all these hungry microbes that want to eatthem. But they resist being eaten."

In particular, there's a rare type that grows on 500 year-old trees inthe Pacific Northwest. The wood conk mushroom, also known as Agarikon.It looks like the hoof of a deer or a cow or perhaps a small beehive.

Paul Stamets: "Because they're in the old growth forest under such wetconditions, I'm real curious how can something stay in the woods for solong and not rot. I thought, well that's a good group to look at."

Paul Stamets cultured numerous strains in his lab and prepared naturalextracts. For the past two years, he's submitted samples to the DefenseDepartment's BioShield program for testing.

They go to a top security U.S. Army lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Itscreens for potency against contagions that might be used as terroristweapons.

The Army says Stamets' wood conk extract shows promise against smallpox and similar viruses.

Paul Stamets: "I believe our old growth forests are important for our national defense. This is a clear example of that."

Smallpox is one of six diseases the U.S. government considersterrorists most likely to use in a biological attack. Routinevaccination of Americans stopped decades ago after the deadly sicknesswas eradicated worldwide. Or so we thought.

John Norris: "But the Russians and others apparently kept their stocksof smallpox and somehow we believe that smallpox has been acquired bypotential terrorists. So it is a real threat."

Investor John Norris chairs a private bioterrorism institute in Boston.He's just signed a partnership with Paul Stamets to commercialize amushroom-based antiviral drug.

John Norris: "Not everybody is either able or willing to be vaccinatedso a therapy is needed as well. A therapy would allow for people whohave been exposed or have contracted the disease to prevent itsincrease within their systems."

Norris sees potential to sell hundreds of millions of doses to theAmerican, British, and German government stockpiles of biologicalweapon defenses. First, the anti-smallpox drug has to prove itself inanimal trials and then get FDA approval. That typically takes years.

One footnote, don't try this at home or bother tromping through an oldgrowth forest to harvest this rare mushroom yourself. Only theextract--produced by a secret patented process--works against smallpox.

Fungi Perfecti LLC

US Army Medical Research Institute

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