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Fungi Expert Paul Stamets Receives Inaugural Wasson Award


Renowned mycologist and American Botanical Council (ABC) Advisory Board member Paul Stamets was honored with the Mycological Society of America’s (MSA’s) first Gordon and Tina Wasson Award, presented to him on July 29, 2015, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

“The purpose of the Wasson Award is to recognize people with non-traditional academic backgrounds who have made outstanding contributions to the field of mycology [the study of fungi],” the MSA’s website explains.1 Nominations for the award are made by members of the MSA, which anyone with an interest in fungi can join. Founded in 1932, the MSA is “a scientific society dedicated to advancing the science of mycology” with members in more than 40 countries.

The award was named for amateur mycologists Robert Gordon Wasson (1898-1986), a vice president of J.P. Morgan & Co., and his Russian wife Valentina “Tina” Pavlovna Guercken (1901-1958), a pediatrician. They became interested in fungi during their honeymoon in the Catskill Mountains, and subsequently published Mushrooms, Russia and History (Pantheon Books) in 1957. After participating in a religious ritual in Mexico involving psychoactive mushrooms, they published an article in Life magazine, also in 1957, titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” which sparked widespread interest in psychoactive mushrooms. R. Gordon Wasson is considered a founder of ethnomycology.2 

The Wasson Award was presented by D. Jean Lodge, PhD, who was the president of the MSA at the time of the ceremony. “Paul has done more for recruiting young mycologists into graduate programs I think than all of us sitting in professional jobs,” she said.3 “He is just so good at outreach, and so good at getting people enthused. He’s doing such interesting work with biofiltration of toxic waste. He’s really contributed a tremendous amount to our field.”

Stamets said he is “deeply honored” to be the first Wasson Award recipient. “The field of mycology is so critical to saving biospheres, yet is underfunded, under-recognized, and underestimated.... Fungi engage in keystone roles in supporting ecosystem health and biodiversity,” he said (email, January 27, 2016). “Recognitions like this inspire us all to bring mycology to the forefront of public and scientific consciousness.”

Stamets first became interested in mycology when he was 16 or 17 years old, after a profound experience with psychoactive mushrooms almost completely cured him of a serious stutter he had suffered with for years. He was eventually taken under the wings of mycologists Alexander Smith, PhD, and Daniel Stuntz, PhD.

“My initial interest was in psilocybin mushrooms [mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe, which produce the psychoactive alkaloid psilocybin], and [Smith and Stuntz] noted my interest was sincere, and they greatly helped me,” Stamets said (oral communication, December 18, 2015). “That led to being covered by a DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] license to study psilocybin active mushroom species. So, I specialized in the taxonomy of those species, and then, because of the cultivation skills that I gained, I branched out into growing edibles and medicinals, and my mother was much happier.”

Stamets emphasizes the importance of respectfully challenging the presumptions of the past, which has led him to look more carefully at the entire life cycle of mushrooms. He said that most people think of mushrooms as mushrooms, but that the “hidden secrets” of the mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus that consists of threadlike tubes called hyphae spreading in every direction) have eluded many researchers. He said mycelia contain a lot more compounds and proteins than mushrooms. “[Mycelia] are a lot more bioactive because they’re in direct competition with microbes that are trying to consume [them],” he said. “The fleshier mushrooms rot in a few days, so, in fact, they don’t have a very good immune system, compared to the immunologically active mycelium.”

Understanding the life cycle of fungi has helped give Stamets a broader perspective. “There are millions of microbes per gram of healthy soil, and for the mycelium to navigate through that potentially hostile environment speaks of a treasure trove of new active constituents that can help human and environmental health,” he said.

After the events of September 11, 2001, Stamets became involved with Project BioShield, a collaborative federal effort to discover new means of protecting Americans from chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear attacks.4 A medical researcher with the biodefense program saw two articles Stamets wrote in HerbalGram, “New Anti-viral Compounds from Mushrooms,” published in 2000 in issue 51, and “Novel Antimicrobials from Mushrooms,” published in 2002 in issue 54, and contacted him, requesting that he submit samples from his library of rare mushroom strains from various old growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest. He submitted more than 500 extracts, and many showed significant effects (in vitro with human cells) against smallpox, flu viruses, and herpes.

In 2014, after his success with Project BioShield, Stamets contacted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) hoping to submit 80 strains (phenotypes) of agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis, Fomitopsidaceae), an extremely rare mushroom (four of the seven strains of agarikon previously submitted to Project BioShield showed strong antiviral activity). But instead of allowing Stamets to submit natural extracts for clinical testing, the NIH required him to submit pure, isolated molecules, which meant he had to choose from more than 200,000 molecules for which the mycelium codes to make a mushroom.

At the same time, Stamets was studying how certain polypore mushrooms break down rotting birch (Betula spp., Betulaceae) wood. He theorized that one of the reasons bees are attracted to rotting wood is because mycelia strengthen the bees’ immune systems and help protect against colony collapse disorder. So, Stamets submitted to the NIH 20 molecules (from F. officinalis) produced by polypore mycelia as they rot wood. “And now we know that nine of them are highly antiviral. Five of them are extremely active against HPV (the human papillomavirus), and four others are active against the norovirus, against polio, against the Epstein-Barr virus, and against varicella-zoster, which causes shingles… . Maybe it was intuition. Maybe it was just sheer luck, but I guessed and intuited nine new antiviral molecules unknown to the pharmaceutical industry, unknown to science, with extraordinarily high activity,” he said.

“Many of these [molecules] are active against oncoviruses, viruses that cause cancer,” Stamets continued. “And also many of these mushroom species positively affect the microbiome, as a prebiotic, helping beneficial bacteria and downregulating the inflammatory bacteria. Nature is a numbers game, and mushrooms and mycelia are literally small pharmaceutical factories that are coding for hundreds of thousands of compounds.”

Stamets said the Wasson Award is validation of his lifelong work. “When I entered the field of mycology, my work initially was very controversial. So, to receive this award is recognition that the past 40 years — my work now is being recognized by the best mycologists in the world as being important,” he said.

“I think I discovered something fundamental to the foundation of nature: that specific mushrooms and their mycelia immunologically protect, and connect, animal inhabitants of forest lands, from bees to birds, bats, bears, pigs, and people,” he said. “We were once all forest people for millions of years and then we invented agriculture around 12,000 years ago, which led to massive deforestation, dismantling the mycocellular networks [that] nurtured us for eons. Today, we are experiencing the consequences of this self-inflicted devastation.”

A graduate of Evergreen State College, Stamets is the author of books including Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms (Ten Speed Press, 2000) and Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press, 2005). In 1980, he founded Fungi Perfecti, a supplier of a variety of mushroom-related products. He lives in Kamilche Point, Washington.

—Connor Yearsley


  1. The Gordon and Tina Wasson Award. Mycological Society of America website. Available at: Accessed February 2, 2016.
  2. R. Gordon Wasson. Wikipedia. Available at: Accessed January 26, 2016.
  3. Stein L. Paul Stamets receiving the MSA Wasson Award. YouTube. August 3, 2015. Available at: Accessed January 26, 2016.
  4. Project BioShield. The White House website. Available at: Accessed February 2, 2016.