Fungi's Deep Horizon
By Paul Stamets
The BP oil spill has inflicted enormous harm in the Gulf of Mexico, and will continue to do so for months, if not decades, to come.
Clearly, this disaster could have been prevented. Despite all their assurances of safety, BP and subcontractors failed to ensure the functionality of the emergency equipment on the Deep Horizon rig. The oil industry claims that further regulation will handcuff them, but it is now obvious that more steps need to be taken to prevent a catastrophe like this from ever happening again.
However, this spill did happen, and we now must deal with the aftermath. Although estimates have been that BP could be liable for more than 14 billion dollars in clean up damages, very few in the media have mentioned the long-term, generational consequences of this oil spill. There will inevitably be a surge in cancer cases, widespread degradation of wildlife habitat, and an array of diverse and complex strains on local communities, our nation, and the planetary ecosphere as a whole. We all know that the seas are connected, and ultimately our biosphere suffers globally when suffering locally. We may see catastrophes converge to create what may be the greatest ecological disaster in hundreds of years.
While we will need a wide array of efforts to address this complex problem, mycoremediation is a valuable component in our toolset of solutions. Mycoremediation has demonstrated positive results, verified by scientists in many countries. However, there is more oil spilled than there is currently mycelium available. Much more mycelium is needed. Fortunately, we know how to generate it.
Here is what we know about mycoremediation, based on tests conducted by myself, my colleagues and other researchers who have published their results.
We now know that:
1) One of our strains of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) is tolerant to saltwater exposure. The mycelium fully colonizes salt water soaked straw.
2) Straw that has been inoculated with oyster mushroom mycelium floats, making it a potential candidate for use in water-borne mycelial containment/filtration systems.
3) More than 120 novel enzymes have been identified from mushroom-forming fungi.
4) Various enzymes breakdown a wide assortment of hydrocarbon toxins.
5) My work with Battelle Laboratories, in collaboration with their scientists, resulted in TAH‚ (Total Aromatic Hydrocarbons) in diesel contaminated soil to be reduced from 10,000 ppm to < 200 ppm in 16 weeks from a 25 percent inoculation rate of oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) mycelium, allowing the remediated soil to be approved for use as landscaping soil along highways. (Thomas et al., 1999).
6) Oil contains a wide variety of toxins, many of which are carcinogens.
7) Mycelium more readily degrades lower molecular weight hydrocarbons (3,4,5 ring) than heavier weight hydrocarbons. However, the heavier weight hydrocarbons are reduced via mycelial enzymes into lighter weight hydrocarbons, allowing for a staged reduction with subsequent mycelial treatments.
8) Aged mycelium from oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) mixed in with compost made from wood chips and yard waste (50:50 by volume) resulted in far better degradation of hydrocarbons than oyster mushroom mycelium or compost alone.
9) Oyster mycelium does not degrade keratin-based hair as it produces little or no keratinases, whereas other mold fungi such as Chaetomium species (which include some high temperature-tolerant leaf mold fungi) produce keratinases.
10) Worms die when put into contact with high concentrations of hydrocarbon saturated soils, but live after mycelial treatments reduce the toxins below the lethal thresholds.
11) Spring inoculations work better than fall inoculations as the mycelium has more time to grow-out. Bioregional specificities must be carefully considered.
12) Amplifying native mushroom species in the bioregion impacted by toxic spills work better than non-native species.
13) More funding is needed to better understand and implement mycoremediation technologies.
14) Oil spills will occur in the future‚ we need to be ready for them!
What we don’t know:
1) The differential gradients of decomposition of the complex oil constituents from contact with oyster mushroom mycelium. Different toxins degrade at different rates when placed into contact with mycelium.
2) The variables that influence the success of mycoremediation, particularly since the targeted toxins are often complex mixtures of volatile and non-volatile hydrocarbons.
3) How many other species of fungi could be applied for mycoremediation beyond the few that have been tested? Up to now, oyster mushroom mycelium (Pleurotus ostreatus) has been tested successfully but there are literally thousands of other species yet to be tested.
4) How each fungal species used pre-selects the future biological populations. How does this further enable plant communities to recover from toxic waste exposure?
5) Whether or not the mushrooms grown on decomposing toxic wastes are safe to eat.
6) To what degree of decomposition by mycelium of toxic soils makes the soils safe for food crops.
7) How economically practical will it be to remove mushrooms that have hyper-accumulated heavy metals‚ will this be a viable remediation strategy? Which species are best for hyper accumulating specific metals?
8) How to finance and design composting centers around population centers near major pollution threats.
9) How to train‚ on a massive scale‚ the mycotechnicians needed to implement mycoremediation.
10) How to fund learning centers with emphasis on implementing myco-solutions to human made and natural catastrophes.
11) How extensively and diversely will mycoremediation practices be needed in the future?
How can we help?
Knowing that the extent of this disaster eclipses our mycological resources should not stop us from acting.
I proposed in 1994 that we have Mycological Response Teams (MRTs) in place to react to catastrophic events, from hurricanes to oil spills. We need to preposition composting and mycoremediation centers adjacent to population centers. We should set MRTs into motion, centralized in communities which are actively involved in recycling, composting and permaculture - utilizing debris from natural or man-made calamities to generate enzymes and rebuild healthy local soils.
I see the urgent need to set up Internet-based modules of education to disseminate methods for mycoremediation training so people throughout the world can benefit from the knowledge we have gained through the past decade of research.
Such hubs of learning could cross-educate others and build a body of knowledge that would be further perfected over time, benefiting from the successes and failures of those in different bioregions. The cumulative knowledge gained from a centralized data hub could emerge as a robust yet flexible platform that could help generations to come. Scientists, policy makers, and citizens would be empowered with practical mycoremediation tools for addressing environmental disasters.
There are additional opportunities here. By encouraging strategically placed gourmet mushroom production centers near debris fields from natural and human-made disasters, we can open a pathway for mycoremediation. The aged compost‚ that is produced after mushrooms are harvested, is rich in enzymes‚ a value-added by-product. This compost is aptly suited for mycoremediation purposes. Most mushroom farms generate this compost by the ton, and are eager for it to be used elsewhere.
On a grand scale, I envision that we, as a people, develop a common myco-ecology of consciousness and address these common goals through the use of mycelium. To do so means we need to spread awareness and information. Please spread the word of mycelium. Educate friends, family and policy makers about mycological solutions. Bring your local leaders up the learning curve on how fungi can decompose toxins, rebuild soils and strengthen our food chains. What we lack is the widespread availability of mycologically skilled technicians and educators and a more mycologically informed public. We need a paradigm shift, a multi-generational educational infrastructure, bringing fungal solutions to the forefront of viable options to mitigate disasters. An unfortunate circumstance we face is that the field of mycology is poorly funded in a time of intense need.
To support an expanded mycological awareness, I offer my books as resources especially Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. Also, please see my talk on www.Ted.com‚ this is an excellent primer for those wanting to understand how mushrooms and fungi can help mitigate disasters and heal ecosystems.
Let’s become part of the solution. We may not have all the answers now but we can work towards an integrated strategy, flexible in its design, and yet target specific to these types of disasters. We should work in preparation to resolve ecological emergencies before and after they occur. Together, we can protect and heal our communities and ecosystems.
Paul Stamets has been a dedicated mycologist for over 30 years. His work is featured on www.fungi.com.