Every Star Trek: Discovery fan eagerly awaits the ultra-cool black alert, signaling an imminent spore drive jump. The spore drive is a unique feature of Star Trek: Discovery, which is the first Star Trek series in over a decade. The series takes place about a decade before the events of the original series (in a separate timeline from the recent movies). The eponymous USS Discovery, a science vessel, is tasked with developing black ops technology to end the Federation-Klingon war.
The spore drive and its navigation capabilities are refined throughout season one. The spore drive operates by bringing USS Discovery into the mycelial plane, where it can traverse the mycelial network. Mycelia are filament-like parts of fungi. If you were to see them in the soil, they look like a thinner version of plant roots threading through soil. In Star Trek: Discovery, mycelia form the foundation of space and connect every aspect of life across the multiverse. The mycelial network is also its own ecosystem. USS Discovery can jump anywhere almost instantaneously using the network.
Mushroom fanatics and mycologists have caught several “real-life” references in Star Trek: Discovery, despite criticism of the spore drive technology. Even Starfleet officer Paul Stamets is inspired by a real person. If you aren’t a fungus lover, here are three real-life inspirations you are missing out on:
Who is Paul Stamets?
USS Discovery’s Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets is an astromycologist. He is named after Paul Stamets, a real-life mycologist who strongly advocates for the use of fungi in bioremediation and medical therapies. The Starfleet officer version of Stamets helps develop spore drive propulsion technology. Real-life Stamets is a pioneer in the use of mushrooms in bioremediation, also known as “mycoremediation”. Fungi can produce enzymes that break down pollutants in the environment. Amazingly, some fungi can ever break down plastic.
Why are the spores of the mycelial network blue?
The spores that USS Discovery cultures and stores in order to power the spore drive glow light blue. This color is no coincidence. Most species of psilocybin-producing mushrooms turn a distinctive blue color where they are bruised. (Note: this is not a definitive way of identifying psilocybin-producing mushrooms.)
Can we really travel the mycelial network? Does it connect everything?
In real life, the mycelial network disappointingly does not exist as a higher dimensional space we can traverse. But in real life, mycelium of belowground fungi connect plants and trees together, and have even been show to communicate with each other. Mycelium can transport nutrients between different plants or trees, and real-life Paul Stamets has the called the real-life mycelial network “Earth’s natural internet”.
In fact, even bacteria use “hyphal highways” to travel through soil and move much further than bacteria who cannot use fungal mycelium to transport themselves to more food and resources.
Fungi are infamously known for not following rules as well as other biological groups. Learn more about the billion year partnership between plants and fungi, the fungi that farm bacteria like human agriculture, black fungi that can use radiation to grow, and the largest organism in the world (spoiler – it’s a fungus) for some ideas of what’s possible in the real world of fungi. Though some criticize Star Trek: Discovery for its reliance on the spore drive, I think it’s just as easy to suspend your disbelief regarding the spore drive as it is for the better known warp drive.
Overall, Star Trek: Discovery has some nice moments for mushroom lovers. Writer Bryan Fuller strongly admires (real-life) Dr. Paul Stamet’s work in mycology and bioremediation. It’s likely we will continue to see the spore drive in action as Star Trek: Discovery was renewed for a third season earlier last month. However, it remains to be seen why the spore drive isn’t mentioned in the original series.