Mushroom magic

Cleaning up environmental disasters

Sound Consumer | May 2011

by Jim Wells

What if the solutions to cleaning up the most daunting 21st century disasters — such as oil spills and radioactivity from nuclear reactors — involved mushrooms? What if an unorthodox fungi expert in Olympia, Wash., knew the way? Would we take it?

I am a mycophile — a mushroom lover — previously reporting that whatever I have not done yet in the wild world of mushrooms, I hope to. (See In praise of the wild mushroom, Sound Consumer, September 2006.) Dream on. The deeper into the world of fungi, the more vast the frontier, and the more I realize that fungi are key to this rock’s ability to sustain us.

In 1978 I abandoned the role of research bio-organic chemist to head for the Oregon hills. Once amongst logger neighbors, organically growing my own food, I got better at living in harmony with life and began envisioning the roles that fungi play as “glue” in the grand scheme.

About the same time, a PCC member named Paul Stamets abandoned the life of a logger, founded a company in 1980 called Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, Wash., and began amassing the data to substantiate scientifically what I was only intuiting. For instance, he demonstrated that the spawn of a particular species of mushroom dramatically increased broccoli and Brussels sprout yields.

Stamets’ passions, experiences, musings, advocacies, teachings and products have touched, if not advanced, the cutting edges of most everything mycological. Younger myco-entrepreneurs, due to spores that Paul has alighted on the wind, are popping up like Golden Chanterelles after the first fall rains.

Deep horizons

Fungi Perfecti initially provided education and materials for people who wanted to grow gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, but has become a much broader “mycotechnology” company.

Increasing numbers of organic farmers now are using its “Mycogrow” — an alternative to fertilizer that helps produce robust crops. Many species of fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants. They protect plants from pathogens and extend thousands-fold their ability to gather water and minerals. Termed “mycorrhizal” fungi, they, in turn, receive the plants’ sugars, the products of photosynthesis. It’s a beautiful, mutually nourishing relationship.

Parents and other educators are using Stamets’ Life Box™ to teach children about the benefits of fungi to reforestation. (See sidebox)

Fungi Perfecti is developing ­fungi-based methods of killing ants and termites. The company has conducted promising experiments in rapidly rebuilding biologically productive topsoil on old logging roads, using what Stamets has dubbed “mycoremediation” — and at far less cost than questionably successful methods in current use.

Stamets’ company also is designing sacks of mycelia that filter toxins and pathogenic bacteria from farm waste to prevent them from migrating where we don’t want them to, such as into streams. (Mycelia is plural for mycelium, a microscopic filament of fungal cells. Mycelia comprise 90 percent of the mass of the organism of which mushrooms are the “fruit.”)

One of the most striking, and early, successes with Stamets’ mycoremediation research I first heard about was the discovery that fungi can perform miracles with toxic waste. When news of British Petroleum’s Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico broke, I thought of Stamets.

Cleaning up oil

Soon, so did the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Could mycoremediation work as a component of its cleanup strategy for the Gulf disaster? Stamets knew it could.

In 1998 the Washington State Department of Transportation had partnered with Stamets and Battelle Laboratory. Their project compared the efficacies of oil-eating bacteria against Stamets’ mycelial mixture.

At a maintenance yard contaminated with diesel fuel, toxic soil was loaded onto tarps and treated either with oil-eating bacteria, the mushroom mixture, or nothing (the “control” piles). After eight weeks, the control and bacterial piles remained “dead, dark, and stinky.” The fungal piles were teeming with large oyster mushrooms; analyses showed they were free of any petroleum products.

Consider that petroleum contains at least 120 known toxics, many carcinogenic. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a class of them particularly persistent in the environment. The fungi had removed 97 percent of the PAHs, whereas all other attempted methods of remediation have failed consistently to break them down.

Eight more weeks later, the fungal piles harbored vegetation and earthworms (the bacterial and control piles were still toxic to both). The soil was so clean it was used for landscaping along Washington highways.

Naturally, then, Stamets obliged EPA’s repeated requests to submit a proposal to the U.S. Coast Guard, and then got to work. He knew the salinity of Puget Sound is almost that of the Gulf, so he isolated an oyster mushroom strain that could tolerate that salinity. He then designed inexpensive, fully biodegradable “mycobooms” made of hemp, a rot-resistant natural fiber in seawater environments (that’s why classic sails and ropes were made of hemp). The booms are filled with straw and mycelia to absorb and digest oil on the surface of seas. Although he applied for a patent for this invention, Stamets has offered it for free to communities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other researchers have corroborated Stamets’ work, and a Port Townsend, Wash., bioremediation company (The Remediators) has used mycelia successfully in its commercial cleanups since 2005. The Remediators also submitted a proposal utilizing Stamets’ mycobooms. So far, there have been no responses to either proposal. Possible reasons include mycophobia, hemp vilification, and management unable to see its way out of petroleum-based approaches and that nature has its own low-tech solutions.

The subtitle of Stamets’ latest book, “Mycelium Running,” is “How mushrooms can help save the world.” Demonstrating and proving mycoremediation works in the largest offshore drilling boo-boo in history would be a much-needed shot in the arm for a paradigm shift from toxic “better living through chemistry” to de-toxic “nature knows best.”

Shouldn’t we be making some return calls to EPA, strongly urging the agency to come to the aid of the denatured Gulf Southeast with significant funds to work the magic that visionaries of the Pacific Northwest have learned from communing with her magnificent forest ecosystems? Not only for the sake of our fellow citizens, but for the sake of people everywhere?

Cleaning up radiation

Researchers even have discovered that some fungi can perform such detoxifying acrobatics as, in Stamets’ words, “binding and sequestering radioactive elements so that they remain immobilized for extended periods of time.” (Example: breaking down depleted uranium from anti-tank shells and binding it with phosphates. Uranium phosphates are largely insoluble in water, severely limiting their ability to migrate or be directly uptaken by plants and animals.)

There are fungi that “hyperaccumulate” one of the more worrisome radioactive elements in fallout from nuclear power accidents, Cesium 137. “Hyperaccumulate” means the mushrooms extract Cesium from the soil until it is more than 10,000 times concentrated in the fungus than it was in that soil.

We learned in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident that some species of fungi seem to “eat” radiation. “Radiation” is the high-energy that “radioactive” particles throw off. It’s damaging to plant and animal tissues but these fungi somehow capture it like plants capture sunlight and use it to power their metabolism. The energy gets recycled —turned into biochemical bond energies that actually benefit the web of life.

You read that right. But read it again.

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, soil as distant as 60 miles from that nuclear plant still is extensively contaminated with long-living radioisotopes. Considering the latest nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, global leaders ought to heed the natural healing power of fungi and partner forests.

Stamets suggests an ambitious “unprecedented opportunity for collaboration, research and wisdom” — the establishment of a “Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone” in the radio-contaminated region around the Japanese reactors. He envisions a “high-level, diversified remediation team” that includes “foresters, mycologists, nuclear chemists, radiation experts, government officials, and citizens.”

This team would design and manage a program that grows mushrooms to de-radio-contaminate soils. They would further our knowledge about how to enact future remediation processes (likely to be needed, dare we say?) and eventually produce a forested national park with many ecological and cultural attributes for Japan’s future generations.

Stamets has presented a basic algorithm for such a plan online. Visit The Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone, Mycoremeditation of the Japanese Landscape After Radioactive Fallout, for a brief outline of his initial ideas. His plan is elegant and valuable, and the kind of team he proposes surely would refine and strengthen the plan by orders of magnitude.

For a more detailed understanding of the mycotechnologies mentioned in this article, particularly the state of knowledge, vital questions to be answered, and opportunities for mycoresponses to disasters, visit fungi.com.

Jim Wells, through the Organically Grown Company, supplied the Chanterelle mushrooms PCC treated you to last fall. He introduced the Pacific Northwest to Johansen’s organic Satsumas in 1980 and transported his first truckload of organic navel oranges from Northern California to PCC Ravenna in 1981.

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