Deep Connections: How Bioneers Helped Grow Mycologist Paul Stamets’ Reach

By developing vast, interconnected networks of great leaders and innovators year after year, Bioneers co-founders Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons have tweaked the old adage, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” As the Bioneers community has proven time and again, it’s both what you know and who you know that matters.

Paul Stamets, world-renowned mycologist, author and founder of retailer Fungi Perfecti, credits Bioneers with growing his web of life-changing connections. And it is connections, both human and subterranean, that have formed the foundation of Stamets’ career.

A Biological Network

One of the world’s foremost fungi experts, Stamets has spent more than 40 years studying mushrooms and the intricate underground fungal networks called mycelium. Mycelium play an indispensable role in Earth ecosystems—supporting above-ground fungi but also decomposing organic matter, helping plants absorb nutrients and enabling trees in forests to communicate and share resources. Stamets’ research has enhanced our understanding of these networks, which he refers to as “Earth’s natural internet,” and he sees parallels between this work and the interconnected Bioneers community. He was first introduced to Bioneers in the ’90s when Simons and Ausubel discovered his research and invited him to his first Bioneers conference; a few years later, Stamets received the 1998 Bioneers Award from the Collective Heritage Institute.

“The Bioneers community is great at calling out leaders in their respective fields, many of whom are working independently and unaware of each other,” Stamets says. “By knitting us together as a community, Bioneers does something quite remarkable…Bioneers is creating this biological network of like-minded individuals with very different skillsets. The skillsets are highly complementary. It’s created a symbiosis that I think is leading to some paradigm-shifting changes for the good at a time when we desperately need big solutions.”

The Magic of Mushrooms

In Bioneers, Stamets found an ideal outlet through which to share his findings and connect with people who have inspired him in his work. These connections have helped him spread the word about his research and some of the truly magical and restorative capabilities of fungi.

Take, for example, Stamets’ experimentation with oyster mushrooms. Most home chefs are familiar with these mushrooms’ culinary value. But in the late 1990s, Stamets was able to show that they had incredible chemical-digesting capabilities, too. Recruited by a national laboratory searching for innovative ways to clean up environmentally devastating oil spills, Stamets covered chemical-laden soil with myceliated wood chips. Within weeks, oyster mushrooms coated the soil, which had returned to its normal color and odor and become a haven for birds and plants. Studies showed the soil had been largely decontaminated.

Stamets has also found some mushrooms to be a promising defense against smallpox and the flu and also effective in certain types of pest control. One of Stamets’ most promising projects is related to colony collapse disorder: the widespread death of honeybee colonies in recent years. Stamets’ research has found that feeding specific mushroom extracts to mite-infected honeybees reduced viruses and increased the bees’ lifespans. The USDA is reviewing commercial use of the extracts.

“Having this community of voices that are multicultural, multigenerational, it speaks to why the biodiversity of our cultures is so important,” Stamets says. “It’s really refreshing to meet so many people from different ethnic backgrounds and see that we have a lot more in common than our differences.”

Read about Bren Smith, another successful Bioneer: 3D Ocean Farming’s Accelerated Success Through the Bioneers Community.

Paul Stamets Bioneers Keynote: Mushroom Magic

Stay up-to-date on what world-changing Bioneers like Paul Stamets are accomplishing by signing up for our newsletter.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.