British Columbia·CBC Investigates

Star Trek's secret weapon: a scientist with a mushroom fetish bent on saving the planet

Paul Stamets looks nothing like his TV counterpart, but he's just as enamoured with fungi. In fact, he believes mushrooms can help save the planet.

Researcher says he’s just a 'messenger' for the mushrooms

Paul Stamets, here holding an Agarikon mushroom, is the inspiration behind a character on Star Trek: Discovery. (Dusty Yao Stamets)

On Star Trek: Discovery, the character Lieutenant Paul Stamets is an "astromycologist" — a mushroom expert in outer space who is passionate about the power of fungi.

Stamets is actually named after a real U.S. scientist who spends his downtime tramping through the forests of B.C.'s Cortes Island. The 62-year-old looks nothing like his blond-haired TV counterpart, but he's just as enamoured with fungi.

In fact, he believes mushrooms can help save the planet.

Over 40 years, Stamets has pioneered methods for using mushrooms to do everything from clean up oil spills to save disappearing bees by boosting their immune systems.

But he's just as excited about Star Trek's potential to inspire people to create some of the science they see presented in screen — even if it does seem a bit fantastic. So were flip phones when people first saw Spock's, he said.

"What I love about Star Trek is that we can actually set the stage for science fact," said Stamets.

Actor Anthony Rapp plays Stamets on Star Trek: Discovery. (Chriz Pizello/Invision/Associated Press)

Science behind the fiction

Amory Lovins, chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, said Stamets' genius lies in finding extraordinary uses for mushrooms, often creating applications that read more like a Gene Roddenberry script than reality.

In a 2008 TED Talk, Stamets explained how fungi can be used to "save the world" by cleaning polluted soil, replacing toxic insecticides and even treating viruses.

He invented paradigm-shifting uses for fungal extracts, including some that have the ability to boost immunity and fight virus. Stamets discovered that extracts from a rare, gnarled mushroom found in old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest protect against smallpox.

It caught the attention of the U.S. defence department's BioShield program for testing at a top-security lab, where it saw some success. The military fears smallpox could be used as a biological weapon by terrorists.

It's not the first time the military turned to mushrooms. In the pursuit of creating so-called superhumans, the military has used Navy SEALs to test Cordyceps sinensis fungus (or Mysterious Caterpillar Fungus), which is used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines to help increase physical stamina and fight antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Eventually, Stamets' research and reputation piqued the interest of Hollywood.

The writers of Star Trek: Discovery were stuck in a plot rut, and decided to call Stamets for help. They were so inspired by the nature and breadth of his work, they wanted to incorporate it into the show's narrative — and created the TV character Paul Stamets, portrayed by actor Anthony Rapp. 
Long before Stamets worked with Star Trek, he built a dream getaway on Cortes Island in homage, in part, to the Starship Enterprise. (Bill Linton)

Stamets said he was thrilled when the producers came calling, because he also happens to be a Trekkie. In fact, his B.C. cabin was built as a homage to the Starship Enterprise, and he sent the writers photos.

"They were blown away — roaring with laughter," said Stamets.

Other television shows have incorporated his name and work into their plots, including The Invasion (with Nicole Kidman) and Hannibal, where the Stamets character is a serial killer who grows mushrooms on dead victims in his backyard.

Stamets was impressed that Star Trek producers asked his permission to use his name and have made mushrooms such a key part of the show. He told the writers about the giant prototaxites plants that grew 420 million years ago, and described how fungi could help create a habitable environment for humans. Stamets said fungi were the first organisms on land and created a base for soil, plants and eventually animals.

"They are the foundation of the food web. Thirty per cent of the soil underneath your feet is composed of fungal mass, he said.
Stamets' wife, Dusty Yao, holds a Jack o' Lantern, or Omphalotus olearius fungi. This is a poisonous mushroom that glows in the dark. (Paul Stamets/Facebook)

His transformation

Stamets believes references to his work in pop culture will help people stop ignoring fungi.

His own obsession with fungi began with a harrowing experience at age 19, when he ate an entire bag of magic mushrooms, which contain a hallucinogen. While high, he climbed a tree in a violent thunderstorm and got stuck. He admits he ingested too many mushrooms.

"I knew nothing about dosing then," said Stamets.

The real Stamets poses with his on-screen avatar. (Fungi Perfecti/Facebook)

But he said the frightening experience had an unintended benefit. It cured his childhood stutter and launched his quest to understand fungi, which led to subsequent epiphanies.

"I'm just a messenger for the mycelium," he said, referring to the network of fungal filaments under the soil that form the largest organism on earth. Mycelium can be found in every forest, but the biggest one he knows of is a massive, 970-hectare mass — bigger than 1,600 football fields — in an Oregon forest. 

Stamets believes this network "communicates," not unlike a fungal internet. The filaments transfer nutrients and information, and even sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxins.

"We walk upon these mycelial landscapes," he said. "Literally underneath our feet are the solutions that are so desperately needed today, and yet we are Neanderthals with nuclear weapons."

Eric Rasmussen, a Stanford-educated medical doctor, describes Stamets as a "savant" and helped him research the use of fungi to clean up radioactive waste.

"A lot of humanity doesn't care that much for fungus," said Rasmussen, the CEO of Infinitum Humanitarian Systems in Seattle. "We worry about them and slice them and drown them in butter, but we don't really understand what they are doing."

Mushroom vanguard

This fall, Stamets spoke at a California conference about "microdosing," a trend among some athletes and computer coders that involves ingesting tiny amounts of the psychedelic substances in magic mushroom to improve performance by enhancing perception.

Stamets was eager to see fungi featured in Star Trek: Discovery because he believes raising awareness about the lowly mushroom may help save the planet. (Fungi Perfecti/Facebook)

But Stamets would prefer to talk about bees. He said watching them drink liquid off fungi twigged him to the immune-boosting power of mushrooms.

"Things I had spoken about for a number of years are now getting a lot of traction," said Stamets, who is the founder of Fungi Perfecti, a company that markets everything from garden products and mushroom supplements to a children's book.

Stamets is thrilled Star Trek will ignite interest in his underfunded field, but he's quiet about one thing.

Ask him to reveal upcoming plot twists and suddenly, he's as silent as a shiitake.


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award (2017). Got a tip?