Paul Stamets, a mycoremediation expert, explains some of the ways mushrooms can lead to a healthier Earth—all by using natural means.
There are many naturally-occurring plants and species that have the ability to heal the earth. In Earth Repair (New Society Publishers, 2013), author Leila Darwish dives into bioremediation techniques that work with many of the world’s oldest disaster responders, alchemists and healers. The following excerpt is from Chapter 6, “Mycoremediation.”
Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Earth Repair.
Paul Stamets, D.Sc. is the leading mycorestoration visionary and author of several guidebooks on everything from how to cultivate gourmet and medicinal mushrooms to mycoremediation. With his many mycorestoration projects, resources, experiments and seminars, Stamets is constantly pushing the edge of what is possible when it comes to the healing forces of fungi.
Leila Darwish: What are some of the things you are working on at the moment with mycofiltration or mycoremediation?
Paul Stamets: We have several projects in Mason County, Washington, USA using burlap sacks for filtering greywater. We try to find choke points where there is confluence, where we can have the maximum effect by putting mycelium at these points. Then we are able to capture contaminants and ameliorate the impact downstream of those choke points. The water tends to carry more than just one contaminant, so it is not uncommon for the water to have E. coli, pesticides, nitrates and phosphorous (for example). This is where mycoremediation and mycofiltration offer some unique advantages. Oyster mushrooms will not only break down petroleum-based contaminants; they will also capture and eat E. coli, a fecal coliform bacterium, so you get a two-for-one with that species.
The more sophisticated approach would be addressing the different types of contaminants species-specifically — which means we would put a serial number of species together. You can imagine one row of burlap sacks filled with oyster mushrooms, at the front, to capture petroleum products as well as E. coli. If there was a mercury output from an upland source, then turkey tails have been well demonstrated to bind up mercury and mercuric ions in water with the selenium that the mycelium traps. The selenium and mercury come together form a biomolecular bond or unit that is totally non-toxic. That is one simple example where you could use oyster mushroom and turkey tails serially and then you are also using and amplifying indigenous species. These two mushrooms are prime candidates as they literally occur in every woodland in the world. They are circumpolar — from the tropics to the boreal forest up north.
Leila Darwish: How can we get more mycoremediation work happening at the community level?
Paul Stamets: Every community should have a gourmet mushroom farm — to help build carbon in the soil, to provide local healthy food and to be able to recycle very proximate sources of debris and waste. Every gourmet mushroom farm (they should all be certified organic) should be reinvented as an environmental healing center so that the mycelium can be used for remediation locally. Moist mycelium weighs a lot; so shipping tons of mycelium across country does not make any sense for remediation. With the debris fields that are close to the problems, you want to keep that distance as short as possible and site the farms in close proximity. My dream is that there would thousands upon thousands of small mushroom farms spread across the world that would be tied in to healing art centers, schools, to teaching environmental sciences, to teaching basic biology and the role of fungi in nature.
Leila Darwish: What are some ways that fungi can be used to help clean up oil spills in water?
Paul Stamets: I recently invented Mycobooms, which are floating booms of straw filled with oyster mushroom mycelium. They can be used to corral and hold in oil and in the process of digesting the straw, the mycelium produces enzymes that break down the oil. These Mycobooms are totally biodegradable, using hemp socks that are about 20 feet in length 12 inches in diameter. They can float for three to four months. The booms begin the enzymatic breakdown of the oil, especially the more complex heavy hydrocarbon rings; these are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The mycelia break them down in a stepwise fashion into smaller and smaller aromatic rings that make the PAHs then available for bacteria and other organisms to do their job too. So these fungi are the gateway species. There is a big takehome message here: These primary saprophytic mushrooms begin the sequence of decomposition that allows for a bloom and burst of biodiversity to occur so that other members in the ecological community can then use their skill sets to further break down the toxic waste. So these Mycobooms could be a gateway invention, and once you get them involved, habitat restoration occurs much more quickly.
Leila Darwish: What are some methods for mycoremediating oil spills on land?
Paul Stamets: A method for land oil spills resembles sheet mulches. Layers of straw and wood chips inoculated with mycelia, 4–12 inches deep. Another extremely interesting and promising thing is that after a mushroom farm produces all the mushrooms, the substrate may be more valuable than the mushrooms themselves in terms of the economic value of its inherent enzymes. You can squeeze the enzymes out from the substrate, and you end up with this yellowish fluid that is extremely active at breaking down toxic waste. Like milking a cow, you could in a sense milk a mushroom farm, collecting the extracts coming from the substrate after it stopped producing mushrooms. Within that juice is an extremely powerful number of enzymes that can be very helpful in mycoremediation.
Leila Darwish: Any final mycorevolutionary thoughts?
Paul Stamets: We need a tidal change in consciousness, and fungi offer so many solutions that we can put into practice. But it is going to take a mycological revolution on an order of magnitude such that kids learn about fungi in elementary school and in middle school. So that students and the next generations grow up to be mycologically astute, understanding that we can repair the damage we inflict upon nature. If we don’t, we are shooting holes in our lifeboat; we will not only be the cause of major extinction, but we will become its victim.
For more information about Paul Stamets, D.Sc., and his work, please visit his website Fungi.com. His organization, Fungi Perfecti, offers mushroom cultivation and remediation seminars, resources, and you can order mushroom cultivating kits, spawn and books online. Stamet’s most recent book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, is a foundational resource to read for anyone wanting to get involved in mycorestoration. His other two books, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms and The Mushroom Cultivator, are also great guides to help you cultivate and understand the many different types of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
For more information on Paul Stamet’s take on the mycoremediation of oil spills and of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, please read:
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Earth Repair: A Grassroots Guide to Healing Toxic and Damaged Landscapes,by Leila Darwish, published by New Society Publishers, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Earth Repair.