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Could Fungi Be the Future of Oil Spill Remediation?

Oil spills have always been an explicit display of mankind’s negative impact on the environment. Some of the most notable oil spills include BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 132 million gallons and Pemex’s Ixtoc I oil spill of 140 million gallons. While both afformented spills were accidental, the largest oil spill to date was an intentional act led by the Iraqi government. During Iraq’s 1991 occupation of Kuwait, hundreds of oil wells were ignited to keep American soldiers at bay, releasing 380 to 520 million gallons of oil.  Oil spills can destroy wildlife populations, pollute aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and compromise food sources. The BP oil spill, for example, harmed or killed about 82,000 birds, 6,165 sea turtles, and 25,900 marine mammals according to the Center for Biological Diversity. While traditional responses to oil spills include physical barriers, skimming and burning of oil, and chemical dispersants, another viable cleanup method has emerged: mushrooms.

When most people think of mushrooms, they envision a pizza topping, an intruder on a well-kept lawn, or Woodstock. Mycologists, or those who study fungi, add that mushrooms have more to offer. As the first organism arriving on earth 1.3 billion years ago, fungi have evolved into an estimated 1.5 to 5 million species. The extreme biodiversity within the fungi kingdom is part of the reason why scientists have turned to fungi to solve an array of problems. Most fungi spend their lives unseen, excreting digestive enzymes that decompose the dead, recycle elements for the living, and hold soil together with their extensive root system called mycelium.  To the naked eye, mycelium resembles a ball of cotton or cobwebs, but when examined more closely, it’s an intricate weave of branching, threadlike membranes whose structure and function has earned the informal title “the neurological network of nature.” The mycelium networks excretes hundreds of enzymes and acids, some of which can break down oil.

Because fungi do not contain chlorophyll and cannot create their own energy, they rely on enzymes to break down organic matter, seeking out lignin and cellulose, the two basic building blocks of plant fiber. Lignin and cellulose are composed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen, known as hydrocarbons. Conveniently, lignin and petroleum are structurally the same. Because of this, mycelium can break down hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water. The mushrooms that form from mycelium can even attract fungus gnats and flies, subsequently inviting predators such as fish, birds, bats, and insects back to previously contaminated areas.  

When discussing mycoremediation—the process of using fungi to clean up the environment—it’s impossible to ignore the contributions made by Paul Stamets. Stamets is a trailblazer in mycology and one of the first people to explore fungi for oil spill remediation. One of the first studies testing mycoremediation was a collaboration between Stamets and Battelle Laboratories in Bellingham, Washington. In 1998, the team started by growing a few dozen strains of oyster mushrooms, testing each for oil-digesting ability in petri dishes. The most efficient strains were then selected for an experiment on oil-contaminated soil from a maintenance yard. Four piles of soil were laced with either myceliated wood chips, bacterial cultures, chemical fertilizers, or left as a control pile. While three piles showed little to no change, the pile treated with myceliated wood chips reduced oil concentrations from 10,000 parts per million to less than 200.  

Since then, Stamets has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate how mycelium can remove pathogens from stormwater, set up a mycology scholarship at his alma mater (Evergreen State), and even patoned the mycoboom: a burlap tube filled with oyster mushrooms designed to break down petroleum while floating on a slick or barricading a beach. Given Stamets’ lack of academic or institutional affiliation, his research draws some skepticism. Stamets’ research is scientifically sound and peer reviewed, but many discount his work because he chooses to study fungi independently. When he proposed using mycobooms to combat the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, officials never even responded. Stamets, however, has inspired a community of mycologists to pursue similar research and validate his findings.  

Many individuals and organizations have sprung up around the world to investigate the true power of fungi. The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) is currently on ground in Ecuador using mycelium to remediate thousands of petroleum-filled waste pits deposited by multiple oil companies. The team identifies and cultivates native fungi species of Ecuador, reproduces them in their laboratory, and integrates them into their biofiltration model. In a laboratory scale test, researchers at Aalto University in Finland found 96% of polyaromatic hydrocarbons were broken down from contaminated soil in 3 months. In New Mexico, the indigenous advocacy group Tewa Women United is working to restore their petroleum-polluted land with bricks inoculated with oyster mushroom mycelium.  

Despite efforts across the globe to advance mycoremediation, there are still many unknown factors. With millions of species, mycologists are working to identify additional fungi beyond the popular oyster mushroom that could be used in oil-spill remediation. Mycologists are also investigating the economic feasibility of wide-scale mycoremediation and the safety of rehabilitated soil for crop cultivation. One of the biggest barriers mycologists face, however, is lack of funding and awareness. Even as one of the leading mycologists in the world, Stamets relies on funds from his private company Fungi Perfecti to accelerate his research. Many other projects have gone bankrupt before conclusions were reached. “I see the urgent need to set up webinar-like, 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,” says Stamets.  

In February, three oil spills polluted waters off the coast of Israel, California, and British Columbia. Despite international outcries for better oil-containment technology, increased accountability from oil corporations, and the phasing out of petroleum altogether, the environment still bears the brunt of these disasters. Until the world fully transitions to sustainable energy forms, oil spills are inevitable. In the meantime, fungi need to be taken seriously as a viable oil spill remediation technique and mycologists must receive adequate funding to explore fungi’s full potential.  



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