I enjoy TED greatly. The multidisciplinary approach is a perfect way to introduce yourself to new ways of thinking – and thinking in unconventional ways is something Paul Stamets has spent a lifetime doing. Paul loves mushrooms – or more correctly, he loves fungi.
We are intimately related to fungi. Animals and fungi are part of a larger group called Opisthokonta, that is, we share a common ancestor. The same pathogens that attack fungi attack us – and some of the most promising and effective antibiotics come from fungi. Unlike plants (and like us) fungi inhale oxygen and produce carbon dioxide.
Fungi used to rule the earth. There’s a common misconception that first there was life in the oceans, then plants grew around the oceans, and eventually basic animals wandered out somehow. Not true. Fungi were the first organisms to arrive on land, and plants followed several hundred million years later.
Why? Fungi can produce oxalic acid along with many other acids and enzymes in order to grab minerals they need to grow. Where do they get these minerals? Well, as they moved out of the ocean they obtained them from rocks. This slow process of calcium oxalate formation causes rocks to slowly crumble, and is the first step in producing the soil conditions necessary for plant growth.
So what, you may say – just more slime around a very old pond. Well, not true! This is the absolutely mindblowing part, and I was surprised that I’ve never even heard of it before. There are organisms called prototaxites which could reach sizes of up to 1 m (3 feet) across and 8 m (24 feet) high – all during a time when the largest plants were 2 feet tall.
The landscape of this early Earth must have been breathtaking.
The industrial potential of fungi has not yet been realized. Not even close. I think in this part of the talk he starts to run out of time, but what he manages to state is stunning.
Paul was involved in an experiment to gauge the effectiveness of various methods to remove petroleum waste. Four piles of dirt were saturated with hydrocarbons. One was left alone, one was treated with bacteria, the other with enzymes, and Paul’s used fungi (of course). Fast forward six weeks – three of the piles remain “dead, dark, and stinky”, while the fungi-treated pile was covered in hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms. Fast forward to eight weeks, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon levels (a measure of the level of contamination of the soil) went from 10,000 parts per million to 200. Not to mention that by the end of the experiment the fungi treated pile was the only one covered in grass…
There are more great examples in the talk itself. I strongly recommend giving it a listen or three – it’s about as far from my line of work as you could get, and I found myself absolutely fascinated.