IN THE OLD-GROWTH forests of the Pacific Northwest grows a bulbous, prehistoric-looking mushroom called agarikon. It prefers to colonize century-old Douglas fir trees, growing out of their trunks like an ugly mole on a finger. When I first met Paul Stamets, a mycologist who has spent more than three decades hunting, studying, and tripping on mushrooms, he had found only two of these unusual fungi, each time by accident -- or, as he might put it, divine intervention.
Stamets believes that unlocking agarikon's secrets may be as important to the future of human health as Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillium mold's antibiotic properties more than 80 years ago. And so on a sunny July day, Stamets is setting off on a voyage along the coastal islands of southern British Columbia in hopes of bagging more of the endangered fungus before deforestation or climate change irreparably alters the ecosystems where it makes its home. Agarikon may be ready to save us -- but we may have to save it first.
Joining Stamets on the 43-foot schooner Misty Isles are his wife, Dusty, a few close friends, and four research assistants from Fungi Perfecti, his Olympia, Washington-based company, which sells medicinal mushroom extracts, edible mushroom kits, mushroom doggie treats, and Stamets' most recent treatise, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. "What we're doing here could save millions of lives," he tells me on the first morning of the three-day, 120-mile voyage. "It's fun, it's bizarre, and very much borders on something spiritual."
A few months earlier, the University of Illinois-Chicago's Institute for Tuberculosis Research sent Stamets its analysis of a dozen agarikon strains that he'd cultured in his own lab. The institute found the fungus to be extraordinarily active against XDR-TB, a rare type of tuberculosis that is resistant to even the most effective drug treatments. Project BioShield, the Department of Health and Human Services' biodefense program, has found that agarikon is highly resistant to many flu viruses including, when combined with other mushrooms, bird flu. And a week before the trip, the National Center for Natural Products Research, a federally funded lab at the University of Mississippi, concluded that it showed resistance to orthopox viruses including smallpox -- without any apparent toxicity. The potential implications are obvious: Most Americans under 35 have not been vaccinated for smallpox, and experts fear the current supply of the vaccine may be insufficient in case of a bioterror attack. A bird flu pandemic within the decade is even likelier. Currently, agarikon is being tested to see if it can also fight off the H1N1 swine flu virus.
"When you mention mushrooms people either think magic mushrooms or portobellos. Their eyes glaze over," Stamets laments. That a homely, humble fungus could fight off virulent diseases like smallpox and TB might seem odd, until one realizes that even though the animal kingdom branched off from the fungi kingdom around 650 million years ago, humans and fungi still have nearly half of their DNA in common and are susceptible to many of the same infections. (Referring to fungi as "our ancestors" is one of the many zingers that Stamets likes to feed audiences.)
On the first morning of our journey, agarikon remains elusive. From the deck of the Misty Isles, the white heads of bald eagles pop out of the dense green slopes of Mink Island, generating false sightings of the chalky mushroom in the treetops. "People say, 'Everywhere you mycologists look, you see mushrooms,'" Stamets says, focusing his binoculars. He laughs. "It's true. The thing about mushroom hunters is, they tend to burn an image of a mushroom on their retina. Then you end up overlaying that image on the landscape. The mushrooms seem to jump out at you."
STAMETS IS of medium height and stocky build. His graying beard, round face, and glasses recall Jerry Garcia. As he tells it, mushrooms came into his life because of a humiliating stuttering habit. "I always stared at the ground and couldn't look people in the eye," he recounts. "That's how I found fungi."
He remembers pelting his seven-year-old twin brother with puffball mushrooms, watching the spores explode in his face. But Stamets didn't get serious about mushrooms until he was 18, when he ingested psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. Hallucinating alone in the Ohio countryside, he got caught in a summer thunderstorm and climbed a tree for shelter. Waiting out the storm, Stamets examined his life. "I asked myself, 'Well Paul, why do you stutter so much?' So I repeated, 'Stop stuttering now,' over and over again, hundreds of times. The next morning, someone asked, 'Hi Paul, how are you?' I looked him right in the eye and said, 'I'm fine, how are you?' I didn't even stutter. That was when I realized mushrooms were really important to me."