Mycology’s Expansive Boundaries

Paul Stamets. Credit: Trav Williams Broken Banjo Photography

In the media we scan for articles and podcasts to share here, some of the last year’s attention to fungi has been aimed at making them seem less alien by celebrating their very alien-ness. Up to now, this has all been earth-bound, but maybe that has been an arbitrary boundary. Thanks to Scientific American magazine for this conversation with the man who has been stretching fungi boundaries for much longer than we have been paying attention:

Future Space Travel Might Require Mushrooms

Mycologist Paul Stamets discusses the potential extraterrestrial uses of fungi, including terraforming planets, building human habitats—and providing psilocybin therapy to astronauts

The list of mycologists whose names are known beyond their fungal field is short, and at its apex is Paul Stamets. Educated in, and a longtime resident of, the mossy, moldy, mushy Pacific Northwest region, Stamets has made numerous contributions over the past several decades— perhaps the best summation of which can be found in his 2005 book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. But now he is looking beyond Earth to discover new ways that mushrooms can help with the exploration of space.

In a new “astromycological” venture launched in conjunction with NASA, Stamets and various research teams are studying how fungi can be leveraged to build extraterrestrial habitats and perhaps someday even terraform planets. This is not the first time Stamets’s career has intersected with speculative space science. He also recently received an honor that many researchers would consider only slightly less hallowed than a Nobel Prize: the distinction of having a Star Trek character named after him.

Scientific American spoke with Stamets about the out-of-this-world implications for the emerging field of astromycology.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

First, a chicken-or-egg question: Did Star Trek: Discovery name a character after you because you had started exploring astromycology, or was the idea for astromycology inspired by Star Trek?

CBS got ahold of me and said the writers of Star Trek wanted to talk to me: “We’re in the dungeon, there’s about a dozen of us, we’ve been tasked with Star Trek: Discovery, we’re hitting a brick wall, and we saw your TED Talk.” I had mentioned terraforming other planets with fungi.

What separates Star Trek from other science fiction, you know, is it really pioneered the importance of inclusivity, recognizing that the diversity of the members of our society gives us strength. And, indeed, that’s what I’ve learned as a mycologist: the biodiversity of our ecosystem gives our ecosystem resilience. Ultimately, diversity wins.

So I told them terraforming with fungi on other planets is very plausible. Fungi were the first organisms that came to land, munching rocks, and fungi gave birth to animals about 650 million years ago. We’re descendants of the descendants of these fungal networks…

Read the whole interview here.

2 thoughts on “Mycology’s Expansive Boundaries

  1. I watched the Fantastic Fungi documentary on Netflix last night, it was absolutely fascinating. A week ago I watched another documentary about the life in a forest, and fungi was a primary study subject in forest families, there is so much work to do to correct our climate errors and fungi is a powerful part of the process. Great post!

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