Fungi Will Be Found on Other Planets Says Top Mushroom Expert: 'Matter Begets Life'

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the magical world of fungi and the power that these incredible organisms have to shape the future of life on Earth.

Scientists around the world have touted fungi as part of the solution to some of our most pressing medical, therapeutic and environmental challenges.

A documentary, Fantastic Fungi, and available now on Netflix, explores these issues and more.

Directed by filmmaker and mushroom curator Louie Schwartzberg, the movie features contributions from renowned fungi expert (mycologist) Paul Stamets, whose TED talk, "6 ways mushrooms can save the world", has been viewed millions of times.

Below is an interview with Stamets and Schwartzberg that has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you give an overview of the critical importance of fungi to the evolution of both plant and animal life?

Paul Stamets: The network-like design of the mycelium [a dense mass of fine, thread-like filaments that is the vegetative body for fungi] is reproduced throughout nature, from brain neurons to the internet, to dark matter. As an evolutionary model for success—networks and communities of networks survive better than any individual isolation. That's a rule of nature.

Currently, the best evidence we have for the first multicellular organism is mycelium in lava beds in South Africa 2.4 billion years ago.

I fully expect that we'll find fungi on other planets. I think matter begets life. Life begins as single cells, that then link together to form strings. These strings then fork to create networks and membranes.

Fungal networks preceded animals and facilitated the advance of plants onto land. Our planet is unlikely to be unique in the inevitable creation of life from matter. And when life emerges, mycelial-like networks are much better to adapt to change.

Fungal-like mycelial networks in space are an inevitable consequence of the existence of matter emerging into life.

What is the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, the psychoactive substance found in some "magic" mushrooms?

I think all the research on psilocybin mushrooms is so exciting. Yale University just came out with a study, for example, showing that neurons increase from one dose of psilocybin, albeit in rats.

This study actually determined that psilocybin has neuro-generative properties, they increase the ability of neurons to grow and form synaptic junctions. Things that increase synaptogenesis and help repair neurons lead to healthier mental state. This is potentially one of the best medical breakthroughs of our time.

In fact, [myself and colleagues] have an app called microdose.me—we have over 14,000 people that are self-reporting.

We have a paper that's been submitted to a renowned journal. And it turns out in all of these people, that there's a strong correlation between micro-dosing with psilocybin mushrooms and reducing depression.

What to you are the most exciting potential applications of mushrooms, outside of the medical and therapeutic fields?

Stamets: Some of the other innovations that are so exciting are of course the meat replacements. This is scalable. In laboratories, you can grow massive amounts of mycelium. The meat replacements with fungi products are delicious. We also have a grant from NASA right now on astromycology—on growing fungi on asteroids and the idea of creating soils on other planets for human habitation. But moreover, mycelium is about 80-85 percent carbon, and the carbon nano wires are very good for storing electricity. So, you can ostensibly go to Mars, you can grow fungi and grow building structures. Their tensile strength is extremely strong, it's sustainable—you can grow it. And then with solar panels, you could use the structures as giant nano batteries because of all the nanofibers that are in there, and so these can become fuel cells. So, think of that—you can grow your construction material and your battery storage abilities and your food.

And on earth here, the largest reservoirs of biological carbon are fungi in the soil. So you can offset climate change by sequestering carbon in mycelium. That's why I like to say 'let wood rot.' Let the mycelium takeover. Mycelium drives the creation of soils. And, moreover, I think mycelium will lead the way into outer space for human habitation.

What are your thoughts on the so-called "stoned ape theory," developed by the ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, that psilocybin mushrooms were the "evolutionary catalyst" from which language, arts, religion, and other aspects of modern human culture arose from?

Stamets: Two hundred thousand to two million years ago, which is relatively recently, there's a massive increase in the primate brain—at that time there was severe climate change.

I laughed at the stoned ape theory initially, it was a great stoner conversation, I was really very skeptical of it, but now I'm not. Now, we see the evidence says that psilocybin stimulates neurogenesis and builds new neurons.

What's happening now is this crazy hypothesis is increasingly more credible. We may or may not be able to prove the stoned ape theory in our lifetime. But there is an increasing body of evidence that actually supports that neurons are stimulated by psilocybin. And I think we should take note of that.

Can you tell me a bit about the significance of mycelium?

Stamets: What I think the movie so effectively does, is it shows that under every footstep you're taking, you're walking upon living fungal membranes that are extremely sensitive to your presence.

The mycelial networks are really active network-based membranes that are just humming with activity. And so much of the evidence we're seeing now that were once thought to be just folklore, for example, lightning strikes can stimulate mushrooms to form—now we know that's true, electricity pulses will stimulate mushrooms to form.

Then it dawned on me recently that since the mycelium underground can be up to eight miles in a single cubic inch, that these fine filaments would be sensitive to vibrations—not only of your feet stepping upon the ground but sound waves.

These are like strings on a violin, strings on a piano, strings on a guitar. So when you have lightning or thunder over the horizon, when you have people making a drum circle celebrating a wedding or birth, these sound waves are reverberating throughout the mycelial networks and also stimulate the mycelium to grow.

When it grows, it transfers more nutrients to the plants, to the berries, to the fruit trees, it gives you more fruit. So I think nature is listening via these strings of mycelium that are all around us. And this is a big "aha" moment for many people to realize.

Nature is aware of our presence via these fungal membranes. Mycelium is aware of our presence as we thunder as giants across the microscopic universe underfoot. Nature is listening to us. It is sensing our presence. Fungi leap up to take advantage of the debris fields we create.

And I think it's mycelial networks that repair and create new habitats for land-based organisms. By understanding and then engaging mycelium as the curators of ecological health and creator of soils, we have a better chance for our collective survival on this planet, and into the cosmos.

Louie Schwartzberg: Suzanne Simard has been a leading scientist in this area. She was able to put radioisotopes into a tree or a plant and track the fact that it traveled through this underground mycelial network to another planted tree, which goes to show that the forest is a community it's not a bunch of trees.

And that this communication network is there to share information, nutrients—like a warning system—if they're being attacked by pests or some type of disease.

This is really extraordinary. I think that indigenous cultures always had the right concept that the forest is a spirit—you relate to it as a forest not a bunch of trees to be cut down.

Are any fungi species particularly interesting to you?

Stamets: There's a rare old growth mushroom that is on the Red List of extinction in Europe called agarikon. We find that it up-regulates immunity to help fight viruses and so we're very excited about this. These rare species of mushrooms grow in these shrinking old growth forests. We should not underestimate the biological potential and the medicines coming from these endangered habitats. They are genomic libraries that we need to protect and preserve and study, because in them, mushrooms like agarikon, which have been used for thousands of years by many cultures around the world, we're finding now that scientifically, they are extraordinarily powerful in helping to prevent pandemics and up-regulate, the immune system. It's interesting, [it doesn't] do this directly from an antiviral molecule, it enhances your innate immunity. It allows your innate immunity to be at a higher state of readiness.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Schwartzberg: Mycelial networks and mushrooms can heal the planet, they can heal your body. They can even shift your consciousness. All ecosystems interrelate. There is this really narrow, environmentally damaging view that we can harm something over here and not realize that it's all connected. So the message at the end of the movie is that community survives better than individuals. It's nature's operating instructions. This mycelial network is a shared economy under the ground without greed, where ecosystems flourish. That is the message we need to live our lives. It's a blueprint right under our feet, whether it's for politics or society or culture.

Stamets: With every catastrophe, you know, nature leaps up to try and repair—we've had massive flooding recently in Germany and Belgium, for example. As these waters recede, and all this wood has been broken up, who comes to the rescue—mushrooms. After every catastrophe, nature has a way of mending that ecosystem. This is why mushrooms are so exciting. They're healing organisms—they help heal nature when it is suffering from affliction due to natural or human-made causes. Mushrooms are the bridge that bring all of us together as humans, as Earth citizens, as a species related to other species on this planet. It's really wonderful to be in this community.

Fantastic Fungi, released by film distributor Area 23a, is now available on Netflix.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Louie Schwartzberg and Paul Stamets.

A screenshot from the film Fantastic Fungi.
A screenshot from the film Fantastic Fungi.