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Can fungi become a pillar for toxic waste clean ups?

In the last 20 years, mushrooms have proved a natural and cost-effective way of cleaning oil spills, contaminated soil, and toxic metals from lakes. Given our current climate crisis, should we be utilising fungi more?

If you’re of the opinion that mushrooms are only good for a tasty risotto or brief invincibility in Super Mario, this deep dive into the environmental application of fungi will blow your mind more than a trippy night in Amsterdam.

The 21st century has seen this fleshy spore-bearing fungi become a mainstay of modern medicine, cuisine, skincare, and sustainable fashion, among countless other uses. You can even request to be buried in compostable mushroom burial suits or coffins these days.

Aside from its delicious flavour, humanity’s obsession with mushrooms stems from over a billion years of evolutionary fine tuning which has made it perfect for one primary function: to consume.

Its branching network of thin fibres known as mycelium have established mushrooms as arguably the best natural organism for ‘environmental remediation’. Essentially, its digestive properties are excellent at purifying natural environments of some real toxic substances.

In fact, the enzymes they secrete have been found to absorb almost any substrate or surface they’re growing on as nutrients.

As you’ve probably already gathered, this makes them potentially extremely valuable in confronting the current climate crisis and restoring damaged biodiversity.

A promising track record

Over the last 20 years, ‘mycoremediation’ – which refers to using fungi to clean pollution – has formed the basis of several academic papers and practical studies.

In that time, fungi enthusiasts and microbiologists have deployed mushrooms to clean up oil spills in the Amazon, remove boat fuel pollution in Denmark, and to detoxify Washington’s Spokane River of harmful metal compounds.

In arguably the biggest success of mycoremediation to date, a coalition of fire remediation experts and activists in Northern California used oyster mushrooms to clean 40 miles of toxic ash created by wildfires back in 2017.

Incinerated houses across the region left behind the remains of household waste, asbestos, cleaning products, electronics, and other soil pollutants. State officials feared this toxic ash would pollute local creeks in the rain season, potentially tainting the drinking supply of over 70,000 residents for years.

However, once large clumps of debris were removed, oyster mushrooms placed throughout the remnants of burned-out buildings reportedly turned the tide.

Even professional advocates of fungi were surprised at the quantity of harmful sediment the mushrooms absorbed in a relatively short period.

Given wildfires are becoming a more pressing issue as the years pass, it’s promising to see we potentially have an abundance of natural resources to utilise once blazes are extinguished.

Previous research also points to certain types of mushroom fungus being capable of degrading plastic waste – a process that takes some 450 years without intervention.

So, with all these magical applications, why on Earth are you only hearing about this now?

Where mycoremediation is at globally

Like most potentially revolutionary ideas, especially when it comes to sustainability, mycoremediation falls short in the department of federal regulation and outside investment needed to explode on a wide scale.

‘Mycology is very neglected as a science, and mycoremediation is currently very site-specific,’ says Peter McCoy, a self-trained mycologist viewed by peers as a founder of the movement.

At present, those in the field are building a collective record of anecdotal evidence to prove how crucial mushrooms can be in fighting forms of harmful waste. When it comes to convincing national governments of the benefits, however, McCoy concedes, ‘We’re not there yet.’

A large portion of available data on mushrooms is carried out by enthusiastic citizens online who send their own samples and photos to professionals. In terms of real quantifiable studies under controlled design principles, the field is still lacking.

This DIY spirit is perceived by wider science as being too informal, and explains why investment has been difficult to come by.

‘It’s easier to find funding for other types of research,’ McCoy previously stated. ‘It falls on citizen scientists and garage researchers to do the work.’

Many of those who continue to put their faith in mushrooms believe the best chance of bringing their ideas to the mainstream will rely on gathering proof.

Ohlsen, who partook in the California clean-up efforts of 2017, is encouraging US communities to plan for the next wildfire and record legitimate data to formalise the pool of research surrounding mycoremediation.

This, he believes, is the best way to convince governments to provide the funds to action ambitious future projects. On that front, he predicts our perilous climate situation will provide plenty of ‘tragic opportunities’ to do so.