Although it is difficult to overstate the damage caused by massive oil spills like the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, millions of smaller spills occur worldwide every year. Many are no more than a barrel, but they can still be dangerous. Indeed, most of us have seen heartbreaking footage of sea birds, turtles, otters, and other animals covered in crude. The mere presence of the substance can leave birds unable to fly and remove the insulation from a mammal's fur.
Even if oil isn't an immediate death sentence, the compounds in oil correlate to higher rates of immunodeficiency, stunted growth, heart damage, and many other rare diseases. And the effects are as bad for plants as for animals, if not worse. Therefore, everyone is looking for the best way to clean up and reverse the damage of oil pollution. This article will consider how fungi may be the answer.
Traditional Oil Spill Clean-Up Has a Host of Shortcomings
The usual clean-up methods of oil spills include burning the oil, mechanical collection and removal, and chemical dispersal. Unfortunately, all three ways come with severe drawbacks.
Burning the oil releases an enormous amount of GHGs, while the chemicals themselves are pollutants that can damage plant and animal health. On the other hand, mechanical methods are expensive and often fail, allowing oil to escape containment and continue doing damage.
Bioremediation Holds Promise But Is Immensely Complex
But there is a downside. Plastics, oils, and other pollutants comprise many different toxic materials. But each strain of bacteria is usually only capable of consuming one. Therefore, thorough bioremediation clean-up requires a complex balance of many different microbes custom-tailored to the pollutants and environment, including the weather.
Mycoremediation Uses the Unique Biology of Fungi
Fortunately, another kingdom's lifeforms may prove more effective and efficient than bacteria. Fungi. The root system of a fungus, called the mycelium, secretes powerful enzymes capable of breaking down toxins into non-polluting chemicals. Essentially, a fungus digests its food externally, then absorbs it.
If fungi feed on non-toxic substrates, they can yield edible, highly nutritious "fruit" - mushrooms. If the food source consists of toxic elements, the fruit will store them (often in less dangerous forms) in the mushroom caps, leaving the substrate (usually soil) clean, fertile, and carbon-rich. This process is called mycoremediation – literally, mushroom-healing.
Our Understanding of Fungi Is Imperfect and Requires More Funding
While science supports the efficacy of mycoremediation, there are still barriers to widespread deployment. Foremost among them is time. In the US, federal regulations require a short time frame for clean-up methods, but fungi take time to grow and break toxins down.
As a result of low government support, research on mycoremediation as a possible cheaper and more effective solution to oil spill clean-up is chronically underfunded. Therefore, "citizen scientists" are the driving force behind much of the experimentation – and they do not always observe strict scientific methodologies.
Nevertheless, the mycoremediation movement is gaining steam, and there have been several high-profile stories about the purifying power of fungi.
Three Examples of Mycoremediation
Since mycoremediation has not seen widespread use in high-profile clean-up operations, there is still a lot of research to be done about precisely how it works. A meta-analysis of case studies has shown that scientists still must determine which enzymes can decompose which pollutants and whether there could be any collateral environmental damage from the process. However, many small-scale applications have shown promising results.
In perhaps the largest oil disaster in history, Chevron was accused of dumping over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and oil into the Ecuadorean Amazon. Despite a long series of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, the fact remains that the region of Sucumbíos is littered with over a thousand toxic oil waste pits that have wrecked the environment and devastated the local farmers.
Since 2014, a series of NGOs have teamed up with the Instituto Superior Tecnológico Crecermas (ISTEC) to explore the viability of mycoremediation in the area. The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (now CoRenewal) conducted research with many local fungi, determining which ones were most effective at neutralizing which toxins.
Whakatane, New Zealand
In Whakatane, New Zealand, scientists successfully removed a series of toxic contaminants from soil samples using white rot and indigenous fungi. Like crude oil, the poisonous chemicals consisted of hydrocarbons and threatened the local environment.
The scientists concluded that their mix of locally raised fungi was a viable and inexpensive alternative to other clean-up methods. However, they pointed out that the mechanisms by which the fungi dissolved the pollutants were poorly understood and left open the possibility of adverse side effects.
Spokane River, Washington, USA
Hydrocarbons have polluted 15 separate stretches of the Spokane river in Washington. The concentration is high enough to make aquatic life unfit for human consumption and has negatively affected the surrounding ecology of the river. In addition, the pollution presents similar hazards to human health as an oil spill, leading to immune, endocrine, nervous, and reproductive disorders.
The Lands Council is working as part of the Spokane River Regional Toxics Taskforce to reduce hydrocarbon content in the river by 95%. Their primary tool – fungi. Like the team in New Zealand, the task force uses white rot fungi because their natural food is chemically similar to the hydrocarbons polluting the river.
More Research Is Needed, But Current Results Are Promising
Although our knowledge of fungi is imperfect, countless laboratory tests suggest that they can help clean up oil spills and remediate the environment. Moreover, small-scale deployment has been successful in several places around the world.
Nevertheless, questions of large-scale viability remain. While we know that certain fungi can clean up oil spills, we do not yet fully understand how the process works or whether introducing non-native fungi to an ecosystem would have its own adverse effects. That said, the avenue of research is promising, and mycoremediation may be the best long-term solution to our oil-spill pollution.
Volunteer – Cleaning up oil spills can be dangerous, but many local communities have successful beach and waterway clean-up programs. If there's one in your area, consider donating some time to removing petroleum-based garbage from the environment.
Show Your Support – If possible, buy products from companies that prioritize the environment. Many have sustainability info on their websites, and you can do some digging to see if they are greenwashing or walking the walk.
Shop Local – It's a hallmark of sustainability. Shortening your personal supply chain will reduce oil demand, keep money in the local economy, and pick up fresher food – like mushrooms!