Mycoremediation: Cleaning Earth's Soil

Did you know that a healthy ecosystem equates to healthy soil? Likened to an organ of the Earth, much like our skin, soil protects our planet through both macro and microscopic enzymes that secrete digestive enzymes into its environment and break down molecules for use as a food source. In fact, plants, fungi, animals, and humans rely on this nutrient-dense food source for survival. However, since the Anthropocene, healthy soil levels have been degraded by humans from toxic pollution and industrial destruction. However, scientists such as G.M. Gadd and Harbhajan Singh have been at the forefront of remediation research, looking through the lens at fungi as a holistic method to accelerate the process of removing a wide array of toxins from damaged environments and waterways. This process is referred to as mycoremediation – a form of bioremediation in which fungi technology is used to decontaminate the environment.

So, why use fungi? Well, they serve as nature’s recycling agent, also known as nature’s decomposers. In doing so, they can break down almost any substance on earth. Just as fungi break down complex carbon-based plant cell structures, they use their digestive enzymes to break down larger hydrocarbon chains into smaller pieces, and then extract and hyper-accumulate heavy metals by concentrating them into their fruiting bodies.

Such mushrooms that have been utilized are shaggy mane, oyster, shiitake, turkey tail, button, king Stropharia, and trichoderma. These fungi have been found to have an amazing ability to break down toxins such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, textile dyes, leather tanning industry chemicals and wastewater, petroleum fuels, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products, pesticides, and herbicides. 

A quintessential and unique example of  soil mycoremediation has been addressed in international reports from scientists that have discovered fungi that feed on chernobyl radiation sites. The mushrooms were first discovered on the walls of the reactor in 1991 – five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After these findings, NASA scientists began studying the mushrooms to help create a space-approved sunscreen by extracting the radiation-fed melanin from the mushrooms. The astronauts at the international space station have been testing this mushroom-derived melanin since November 2019. Scientists believe this chain of fungi can provide huge steps towards further mycology research into helping protect people from radiation. 

However, it may come as a surprise that even with successful data, mycoremediation is still newer to the field of mycology. In the beginning, research funding for projects was not consistent and modern companies were not as receptive to natural remediation alternatives. Luckily, today, Paul Stamets has brought much more attention to the practice, with larger funded research and wider acceptance. If you are looking to get more involved with mycoremediation projects, there are plenty of educational offerings to learn more about the subject. In order to be effective mycoremediators, it’s important to understand basic mycology and know how to cultivate and care for mushrooms. Fungi for the People offers mushroom cultivation and remediation virtual courses, as well as, The Alchemist’s Kitchen offers virtual courses on mushroom medicine, foraging, and overall education. You can also check out Radical Mycology for more information and current studies in the field.