For more than a decade, mycologist, inventor and researchers Paul Stamets has known
that mushrooms eat oil. Now he has to learn how to do it on a larger scale and get the US government’s blessing.
After the Deep Water Horizon explosions last year, 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.
In fact, polishing the public image of fungus may be more important for Stamets than any decision to bring mushrooms to the Gulf spill. This is because he sees human partnership with fungi as essential to the broader project of creating a sustainable society. Like most other environmentalists, Stamets believes our society is hurting the earth and that the consequences of this damage will be severe. But he differs from the others in his conviction that fungi are the key to repairing that damage, healing the planet and accepting decay as part of nature as well.
Stamets calls fungi the “interface organisms between life and death” because their mic specialize in breaking indigestible substances down into smaller particles that other living things can use as nutrients. It is this ability to digest complex organic compounds that makes fungi so promising for cleaning up oil.
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.
After eight weeks, they found that the fungi had removed 97 percent of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—heavy chemicals within oil that other forms of remediation had consistently failed to break down.
The next year Washington State Department of Transportation joined with Stamets and the Battelle Marine Science Laboratory to research the most effective bio-safenmethods for cleaning up a maintenance yard contaminated with diesel fuel. Workers scooped piles of the toxic soil onto tarps, and each of several piles were inoculated with, either with a form of oil-eating bacteria or with Stamets’ oyster-mushroom mycelia and wood chips mix.
There were also several control patches of soil.
Results showed that his patches were teeming with huge oyster mushrooms feasting happily on the diesel compounds while destroying more than 95 percent of the PAHs and the mushrooms were also free of any petroleum products. The control and the bacteria patches, were dead, dark, and stinky and the diesel compounds remained.
Because the contamination in the soil patches was very uneven, it was difficult to measure the precise concentration of contaminants both before and after remediation. However, researchers at the Department of Transportation eventually declared the fungi-cleansed soil pure enough to use for landscaping purposes along the highways of Washington. And in the years since, Stamets’s findings have been replicated by many other researchers, and further study has shown that various types of fungi are able to partially or fully detoxify oil and pesticides. T^he fungi have also been successful at breaking down depleted uranium from anti-tank shells by allowing it to bond with phosphates to form a more stable mineral.
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 has discovered is that the enzymes and acids that mycelium produces to decompose this debris are superb at breaking apart hydrocarbons – the base structure common to many pollutants. So, for instance, when diesel oil-contaminated soil is inoculated with strains of oyster mycelia, the soil loses its toxicity in just eight weeks
Creative solutions under pressure
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 oil companies from stealing the research.
(Most likely the oil companies would not want to spend their profits on solutions, but maybe you could try using mushrooms to clean up any small oil soil caused by your car or truck..- Editor’s note)
Stamets says he would be happy to share it for free
with affected communities in the Gulf of Mexico.
Excerpts courtesy of http://bit.ly/lLQtR2
Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/m7U7s3