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South Sound researcher finds possible bioterrorism-fighting use for mushroom
BY JOHN DODGE
Mushrooms growing in the old-growth forests of the Northwest could help in the fight against bioterrorism.
That is the evolving belief of Paul Stamets, a 50-year-old Evergreen State College graduate who has forged a name for himself in mycological circles the past 20 years through his cutting edge research into the environmental and medicinal values of a wide variety of mushroom species.
Working in the laboratories at Fungi Perfecti, the gourmet and medicinal mushroom company he formed in 1984 near Little Skookum Inlet's Kamilche Point, Stamets has prepared extracts from a rare wood conk mushroom known as Agarikon that could form the key ingredient in new antiviral drugs.
The antiviral properties of the old-growth mushroom were discovered during recent test tube research by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases biodefense antiviral screening program.
In other words, mushrooms growing in the Olympic Forest have garnered the attention of military and public health officials researching ways to combat bioterrorism.
"Mr. Stamets' samples are the only natural product extracts tested through this program that have demonstrated very active antipox activity," said Dr. John A. Secrist III, vice president of Southern Research Institute's Drug Discovery Division, which oversees an NAIAD contract to evaluate potential antiviral drugs.
Next on tap is animal testing of the mushroom extracts, which Stamets concedes is a quantum leap from the promising test tube results.
But he suggests that other breakthroughs in the biomedical frontier will come from the old-growth ecosystem where so many Pacific Northwest mushrooms reside, breakthroughs that could aid in public health protection and national defense.
Add the fact that only about 10 percent of the estimated 140,000 mushrooms species worldwide have been identified and the potential for discovery is boundless, he said.
"The question is: What else is out there?" Stamet said.
"Personally, I believe we should be saving our old growth forests as a matter of national defense," he said. "It should be a national priority to survey for these antiviral strains."
And, he said, it should be a national goal to increase the old-growth forest inventory by about 1 percent per year after years of systematically logging it into near extinction.
Sitting in his Fungi Perfecti conference room with an Albert Einstein poster on the wall behind him, Stamets talked about the scientific theories that spring forth from his new, sixth book, called "Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World." The book will be in bookstores here in South Sound by mid-to-late October, said Ten Speed Press book publicist Lisa Regul from her Berkeley, Calif., office.
Mycelium is the threadlike network of fungal living matter in the soil from which mushrooms spring forth.
Enduring and omnipresent, mycelium helps rebuild damaged ecosystems and nurture food chains.
"They are the biological elders of the ecosystem," he said.
By taking advantage of mycelium's digestive powers and ability to break down plant and animal matter to form soil, humans can use it to destroy toxic waste, control pests and grow healthier forests and gardens, Stamets said.
Taking it a metaphysical step further, Stamets calls mycelium the earth's natural Internet, a conscious, information-sharing network that humans could benefit from if they learn to communicate with and through it.
"Nature speaks and I listen," Stamets said in explaining how he knits his visionary natural science theories together. "I'm just crazy enough to be right."
" If the sky were to suddenly open up there would be no law. There would be no rule. There would only be you and your memories... the choices you've made, and the people you've touched. If this world were to end there would only be you and him and no-one else. "
"MAN! You know there aint no such thing as left over crack!"