Fungi are incredible organisms that are vital to the earth's ecosystems. They assist in the bioremediation of poisoned soils and oceans, and are also a source of food, and even building material for us humans. Some, like American mycologist and founder of Fungi Perfecti, Paul Stamets, have famously asserted that fungi will save the world -- no off-hand statement, coming from a man who has spent his life studying and promoting fungi and the end of "fungi-phobia" worldwide.
Historically, a wide range of mushrooms have been used in medicine, and there may be one mushroom that might hold the key to the future of medicine. For years, Stamets has been on the look-out for the agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis or Laricifomes officinalis, depending on the tree it grows on), a rare and endangered mushroom that grows only in old-growth conifer forests of North America and Europe.
This "big wood conk -- a perennial polypore" is purported to be the world's longest-living mushroom, and has been known to and used by indigenous peoples of both continents for various ailments and infectious diseases, from coughing illnesses, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, bleeding, and infections. In ancient Greece, it was believed to be an "elixir for long life," and was used to treat tuberculosis.
It's a tantalizing fungi -- watch this short film of Stamets on the hunt for this mythical mushroom in British Columbia:
Interestingly, agarikon is a mushroom that straddles the line between cutting edge science and animistic spirituality. Writes Stamets on Cornell University's mycology blog:
The key pharmaceutically-active compound found in Fomitopsis officinalis is Agaricin (or agaric acid), a white, water-soluble powder that can be administered both orally and topically. Agaricin is an anhidrotic, anti-inflammatory, and parasympatholytic agent, and is now produced synthetically by many pharmaceutical companies.
Interestingly, the medicinal properties of Fomitopsis officinalis are believed to have been discovered independently by the isolated Indigenous People of North America. In North America, these fungi were referred to as “bread of ghosts” or “tree biscuits,” references to the spiritual powers of the mushroom and its hanging fruiting bodies. The mushroom was an important resource for Shamans, who would apply Fomitopsis officinalis powder to cure ailments thought to be caused by supernatural forces.
Modern research into the agarikon reveals that it has strong anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, with several strains demonstrating strong action against pox (cowpox), swine (H1N1) and bird (H5N1) flu, and herpes (HSV1, HSV2) viruses. Stamets' research shows that it is the mycelial cultures, rather than the mature fruiting bodies, that are most potent. It is Stamets' belief that the agarikon, along with other polypore mushrooms, hold the key to yet-unknown miracle compounds for medicine, or as protection against bioterrorism or global pandemics or the crises brought on by natural disasters:
If Agarikon's antivirals prove to be effective in clinical trials, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say we should save our old growth forests as a matter of national defense.