TED 2008: Paul Stamets on how mushrooms can help the world

(I'm liveblogging from TED 2008, in Monterey, CA)

Chris Anderson: If someone takes an obscure area of nature and spends a lifetime studying it, it can be applied to the world at large in interesting ways. Case in point, mycologist and author Paul Stamets, who believes mushrooms can save the world.

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1.3 billion years ago, fungi were the first plants organisms to come on land, other plants followed hundreds of millions years later. We have more in common with fungi than other plants. Mycelium breathes oxygen like us.

Stamets says he loves a challenge and saving the Earth is a good one. He will present a suite of six mycological solutions.

Mycelium holds 30x 30,000 times its mass. They are soil magicians. Creates a spongey soil. It is earth's natural internet, a biologically successful model. It's highly branched. If a path gets broken, their are redundant paths. It is sentient, leaping up in aftermath of your footprints, trying to grab debris. They generate humus soils, and provide a multi-directional transfer of nutrients to trees. The sequence of microbes that occur of rotting mushrooms are an important part of natural cycle of the forest. I'm in love with old growth forests and I'm a patriotic American because of them.

Fungi uses radiation as a source of energy, so the possibility of fungi existing on other planets is a "forgone conclusion."

Mushrooms produce strong antibiotics. Work well against flu. We should save the old growth forests as a mater of national defense.

Here's a Salon article from 2002 about Stamets, titled "How Mushrooms can Save the World."


  1. At what point can we just rename BoingBoing to TedTed?
    I miss the regular BB posts.
    I’ll come back in a week.

  2. Fungi might be the first plants on land if, you know, they were actually plants. Fungi are fungi, genetically closer to animals than plants.

  3. Seriously, as per #2, fungi are very much not plants. Please tell me that a mycologists did not confuse this. Furthermore, finding “fungi” on other planets is not even remotely a foregone conclusion. Fungi derive from a long ecological and evolutionary history, in which they are only relative newcomers compared with bacterial and other unicellular forerunners. Furthermore, they’re heterotrophic. The recent finding that a few fungi may (perhaps, possibly, kinda sorta) use radioactive energy still has nothing on the light and chemical energy capture practiced by other organisms.

  4. Mark – thanks for your TedTed posts, I’ve been enjoying them!

    @Gerta – no way did Stamets miss this point, he’s one of our nation’s foremost authorities on fungi. He’s been ahead of the curve on mycology for years and years.

    And yes, he’s right, Fungi could save the world from all this human-generated polution — just one case in point — the state of WA had a contest to clean up heavily petrochemical-saturated soil using whatever means necessary.

    Bacteria did okay, but the lowly Oyster mushroom blew the competition away. It actually broke down the toxic chemicals down very effectively… a term Stamets refers to as mycoremediation. His principle of mycoforestation will be very important in repairing clear-cut and threatened forests as well…

    His research is amazing – Carry on Paul!

  5. Yes, Stamets rocks. And I agree there’s no way he called them plants. Reporter error. His book Mycelium Running with blow your mind. Repeatedly. Every few pages in fact.

  6. mushroom walks into a bar
    bartender says ‘we dont serve your kind’
    mushroom says ‘aww why not? im a fungi…’

  7. Ditto. Fungi are not plants. Definite reporter error. Time for a boingboing strikethrough correction! :-)

  8. Hey, Stamets! I can’t wait until this talk is up for streaming. I grew mushrooms indoors last year and it was pretty easy, although my oyster kit stopped producing after one flush. I should do that again this year.

  9. yes. this is all very exciting. can someone please teach mycologists to speel and use gramar chekand edit tols for bad apprnceto intllegnt mke seem?

  10. If I’m not mistaken, it was Stamets who did much of the work breeding that oyster mushroom that could clean up oil. The mushroom wasn’t genetically engineered. He just started breeding them by gradually adding more and more petrol to the growing media through subsequent generations. Several generations on, he had oyster mushrooms that thought petroleum was lunch.

  11. Badger badger badger badger badger badger badger…

  12. “Fungi uses radiation as a source of energy, so the possibility of fungi existing on other planets is a “forgone conclusion.”

    I don’t think there is anything Forgone about it all. You can only draw a conclusion from facts. The only facts we have thus far tell us that life only exists on Earth, or when WE visit other places. The Moon may me made of cheese, but it’s not the kind with fungi in it.

  13. I thought boingboing reader’s might be interested in learning about how Stamets’s mycoremediation techniques are being applied in the Ecuadorian Amazon to begin the clean up of 18.5 billion gallons of petroleum waste dumped by Texaco over the last several decades. The (interim) website of the Amazon Mycorenewal Project is here:


    This week I will be in Lago Agrio, the site of much of the oil contamination, to set up the next phase of our project. To check in with us and view bimonthly updates and pictures, check out my blog here:


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