Spokesman for a Kingdom
For more than a decade, mycologist and inventor Paul Stamets has known that mushrooms eat oil. There were still a few kinks to work out; bringing the technology to scale and winning the acceptance of government agencies were two of the most challenging. Yet the basic science was solid and had been replicated many times by other scientists.
Then Stamets heard about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While his first reaction was horror and regret, he also knew that he might be able to offer practical solutions, while at the same time giving his oil-eating mushrooms a chance to show their stuff.
He wasn’t the only one who thought mushrooms might be part of the solution. In the days after the explosionin the Gulf, the EPA contacted him several times to request a proposal. They wanted to understand how mycoremediation—the reduction of toxic compounds into harmless ones by fungi—could work as a component of their cleanup strategy for the spill.
Stamets drafted a three-page proposal and sent it off. Then he ramped up the pace of his research and shifted his focus to finding oil-eating mushrooms that could tolerate the Gulf of Mexico’s salt water and powerful sun.
Stamets is a bit of a rogue scientist. He began his career in the forest as a logger, not as a scientist, and holds no degree higher than a bachelor’s from the Evergreen State College. Yet he has published three of the most widely read books on the art of growing and using fungi, founded a unique biotechnology company that now employs 37 people, and appeared in films and on talk shows to praise the talents of the powerful and mysterious fungal kingdom.
Stamets first tested the fungal appetite for oil in 1997, when he teamed up with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to provide fungi for several lab-based experiments. The team selected mycelial strains and set them loose on diesel-contaminated soil. At the end of eight weeks, they found that the fungi had removed 97 percent of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—heavy chemicals within oil thatother forms of remediation had consistently failed to break down.
Since the Deepwater Horizon spill in April 2010, Stamets has been testing his oyster mushrooms for tolerance to salt water and sun in preparation for a gig off the coast of Texas or Louisiana. So far, he’s managed to isolate a strain that can tolerate the salinity of Puget Sound, which is only slightly less than that of the Gulf. And he’s found ways to float the mushrooms cheaply on hemp “mycobooms” filled with straw and mycelia from which the mushrooms can metabolize oil on the surface of the sea.
Stamets says this new research is “very cool and unlikely to have been discovered if it were not for this disaster.” He believes it will be used in the near future and has applied for a provisional patent to prevent oilcompanies from stealing the research. But he says he would be happy to share it for free with affected communities in the Gulf of Mexico.
Using Petrol-eating Mycelium in the Ecuadorian Amazon to Clean-up Toxic Oil Wastes
The Mushroom: celebrated in infinite stories, enjoyed in billions of kitchens around the world, used for medicine and to invoke spiritual visions as long back as history can tell; it is a curiosity of collective lore and awe. Yet, the nearly supernatural properties of certain mushroom strains to restore damaged environments are lesser known. The mushroom — with all its power to make Alice grow and shrink in size throughout her adventures — is only the fruiting body of a larger organism with even more magic that transcends cultural and hallucinatory metaphor. In many cases hidden beneath the ground, fungi mycelium is actively breaking down toxins and transforming polluted ecosystems into healthy ones. What follows is Luz Grace Terranova’s personal story of discovering mycelium’s promising hope for ecological renewal in one of the most contaminated regions on earth.
Branching from the base of mushrooms are thin, threadlike mycelia that communicate so much information between plants and trees that it has become known, due to the scholarship of mycologist Paul Stamets, as the neural network of the terrestrial biosphere. Mycelium is found in soil or other substrates, sometimes spreading beneath a forest floor as one gargantuan organism, such as in Oregon where a 2,400-acre contiguous growth has been recorded as the largest organism in the world. Mycelium uses its reach to communicate vital information throughout the ecosystem. For example, if a tree at one end of a forest becomes sick, the mycelia can send this information to the other trees, so that they can boost up their immune systems and prevent contagious spread. As if that were not enough to demonstrate its intelligence, mycelium moves beyond being the connective internet-type network for forests, to conducting large-scale environmental restoration by neutralizing toxic wastes through digestive processes.
As decomposing agents, mycelia of certain mushroom species have the digestive systems to break down long, recalcitrant bonds of many organic pollutants produced by human beings. With proper knowledge of this appetite, mycologists have been learning how to feed toxic wastes such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons of oil wastes to mycelia in what plays out as a magic show of ecological transfiguration. Mycelium not only shows us how, but also shares with us the power to transform our toxic environments into once again thriving, healthy, abundant ecosystems.
This very trick of mushroom alchemy is what spurred me to travel with a mycology-centered eco-restoration team The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) to one of the most contaminated places in the world: a town in the Ecuadorian Amazon called Lago Agrio, literally translated as Sour Lake. Given this name in the late 1950s by Texaco it was changed from the original Ecuadorian name, Lago Manantial, meaning Source Lake, foreshadowing the demise of the primary rainforest and people living in the region for the sake of unregulated and exploitative oil extraction.
As the enzymes secreted by certain fungi digest substrate (i.e., wood, straw, sawdust), they also break down many toxins that have chemical bonds similar to wood. Through this process, they can be acclimatized to digest toxins. Some mushroom strains are thus able to denature chemical toxins, such as petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorine, PCBs, dioxin, and many others (See Paul Stamets on “Mycoremediation and its Application to Oil Spills” for a more in-depth explanation of the use of mycelium in oil remediation.
In the case of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the greatest concern lies with petroleum hydrocarbons and with heavy metals associated with petrol contamination (High levels of zinc, cadmium, mercury, lead, chromium and arsenic have been recorded at many sites in the region[iii]). While petroleum hydrocarbons can be broken down into less toxic molecular compounds, heavy metals present a more complicated rehabilitation process. Heavy metals can become concentrated in mushrooms, and must be dealt with carefully. One notable technique involves extracting the heavy metals from the mushrooms, which can be recycled by companies specializing in metallurgy.[iv] A less invasive technique is to plant the mushrooms at precise proportions under plants and trees, facilitating a process of break down and absorption of the metals at levels deemed safe.