Plastics. Ever since a young Dustin Hoffman received that one-word pearl of wisdom in The Graduate, we’ve been paying for it environmentally. Our landfills are bursting at the seams with discarded plastic. Nothing—not even herculean recycling efforts—has been able to stem the tide of these no longer useful petroleum-based products.
Enter mycoremediation, which is the practice of using fungi—specifically the mycelia, or vegetative part of fungi—to biodegrade the formerly unbiodegradable, including plastics. Mycoremediation is a subspecialty of bioremediation, which is the practice of using natural organisms to break down hazardous substances into nonhazardous substances.
In one interesting experiment conducted by a group known as the Radical Mycology Collective, fungi was used to bioremediate cigarette butts, which are made from cellulose acetate, a simple form of plastic. Given that cigarette butts are one of the most common waste products in the world and that when buried in a landfill they may take 10 to 15 years to break down, this is mighty practical science. The experiment demonstrated that fungi can be trained to use their enzymes to break down cellulose acetate, readily found in nature as the walls of plant cells, into simple sugars. These sugars then become part of the natural food chain, and voila—no more nasty nicotine-soaked butts.
But mycoremediation hasn’t stopped at plastics. Mycologists have proven that fungi can undo even more serious environmental damage. Early studies regarding the use of fungi to clean up oil spills, DDT contamination, and Agent Orange dump sites are promising, although large scale projects using mycoremediation are still a ways off.
All of this is because of fungi’s role in the environment. They are organisms uniquely suited to play the essential role of helping organic matter decompose, thus creating soil and dispersing nutrients to other organisms. According to the Radical Mycology website:
Through their co-evolution with plants and animals over millions of years, the fungi have come to fill several roles in nature, one being as primary decomposers, responsible for 90% of all decomposition on the planet. The decomposing, or saprotrophic, fungi survive by excreting powerful enzymes to breakdown the molecules of organic matter into simple sugars that they use as food. Similar to how a fly eats, the fungi digest externally and then ingest their food as a liquid. The connection between death and new life is made literal by the fungi in this nutrient cycling that enables new plants to grow from the byproducts produced by the decomposition of dead organisms.
The public face of mycoremediation is Paul Stamets, a researcher, activist, author, and entrepreneur who has worked for 30 years to understand the essential role fungi plays in the biome. He runs You can find Stamets’s TED talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World” right here. But here’s the short version:
- Burlap sacks embedded with mycelia could be planted downstream from farms and digest coliform bacteria such as E. coli before it gets into our water and food supply. Here’s a study of how the process worked in the Dungeness Watershed in Washington.
- Mycelia can be cultivated as a biodefense against pox viruses.
- Mycelia can be cultivated as a biodefense against flu viruses.
- Fungi can transform the pesticide industry through the large-scale development of mycelia that kill termites and carpenter ants and makes an area permanently immune to them.
- The Life Box, a cardboard box infused with mycelia, can become a large-scale form of carbon sequestration in which shipping materials become part of the biome rather than part of the waste stream.
- The energy crisis can be partly solved by the creation of Econol, a form of ethanol created from mycelia.
Mycoremediation is a growing field (heh), and welcomes the citizen scientist as much as the pedigreed scientist. Toward that end, the annual Radical Mycology Convergence gathers together those seeking to integrate mycology with the deep ecology movement; the 2014 conference will take place in the Midwest, with the date TBD. This is your best chance to rub shoulders with the individuals interested in harnessing fungi’s powers of decomposition in an effort to undo some of what modern industrialization has wrought.
Mushrooms: Once a tasty topping for your pizza, now a cutting-edge weapon in the fight to save the planet.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.