Mushrooms Will Save Your Stew, But Will They Save The World?


If you've got 18 minutes and want to either have your mind blown or your skepticism aroused or both, check out mycologist Paul Stamets at the TED conference:

I saw this same show with the same argument–mushrooms will save the world–this week at Skidmore College, where Stamets gave the distinguished scientist lecture. It's also available in a gorgeously produced book called Mycelium Running and kudos to you, Ten Speed Press, for the best-looking paperback I've seen in years. 

Stamets has proven that mushrooms are the great cleansers of the natural world, able to scrub e.coli from running water, kill the dreaded H5N1 flu virus, and rapidly clean up oil spills by metabolizing the hydrocarbons.

All this, I totally buy.  Mushrooms are amazing.  Soil, where fungi and bacteria work together to turn decay into life, is amazing. The big king bolete my son found last year, which perfumed an entire beef stew, was amazing.

Stamets, on the other had, was a little more P.T. Barnum than I'd expected. He annoyed me with the irrelevant attention he called to his striking younger wife, who appears in many of his slides. Stamets is an independent scientist, with a private lab that's funded by a tacky catalog business called Fungi Perfecti, and he seems to be patenting the bejesus out of fungi-related processes and products.

Of course, check out this post by scientist Steve Quake this week in the New York Times about the watering-down process involved in working at a university and seeking grants.  What do I know?  Maybe renegade science funded by sets of mushroom-themed placemats is exactly what the world needs.


  1. I somehow got on the mailing list for Fungi Perfecti, and it’s fascinating- I always wondered who would buy those placemats, and posters and tapestries… interesting video, though. Gives me a lot to think about.

  2. I’ve checked out fungi perfecti (and similar sites) a few times. Some of the stuff they have looks very cool, some of it,er, less so. For people using woodchip or straw mulches some of the fungi patches look like a really good idea.

  3. In response to the Steve Quake article mentioned at the end of your post:

    I think the general public has no idea how scientific research is funded. Unless they went all the way through academia they wouldn’t know how it works or why it is the way it is. My exposure to it is limited and it baffles me.

    In a nutshell – there is no large group of people looking out for the home gardener by funding research that benefits us. Some research is funded that could cross over from agriculture but when you look at all the research being conducted it is a tiny, tiny bit.

    Food crops (at the commercial level) are researched but nothing compares to the amount of money poured into turf grass research by the golf industry.

  4. Obviously you people haven’t been plagued by those smelly stinkhorn fungi! We have two separate types here in Florida, which arise from egg-shaped sacks. One is an anatomically correct phallic-shaped and sized treasure with brown slime smeared on its tip that smells strongly of feces. The other is the cage-shaped octopus stinkhorn with red/orange legs that have an even stronger smell of a dead animal. Pee-yew! I appreciate what most of the fungi do for us, but not these stinkers.

    For a link to a podcast I recorded on this subject, photos of both types, and a link to an article I wrote, see In the article is a timely reference to Charles Darwin’s daughter, Etty, and her efforts to find all the phallic-shaped stinkhorns in the forest to save the morals of the maids.

  5. Interesting news … thanks for sharing! I found another story from the TED that talks about how indoor plants can increase oxygen levels in your home and also help purify the air.

    By the way, in honor of the upcoming Vday … one study shows women like flowers 100% of the time. Organic, in-bloom house plants are all the rage this year, too.


  6. I liked this TED – and feel that he was not P.T. Barnum. His ideas and visions in conjunction with other scientists partnerships could indeed make a significant difference for our world.

    Would like to see how “Dog Vomit Fungus” falls into his theories. During wet seasons I fight a battle with it.

    Shawna Coronado

  7. Mr. Stamets talks about mycelia being the biological equivalent of the internet; then turns around and patents his mushroom science that could provide an ecologically interesting alternative to house-tenting and insecticides? Has he ever heard of open-source? Shouldn’t the wars of the free-market economy be fought by marketing and branding instead of information hoarding?

  8. what sort of research do you have in mind? not the pantload of time, money and, yes, science, that is being invested in the nursery trade, presumably. so, what do you think would be worthwhile venues for science to explore that would benefit the home gardener?

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