Since Paul Stamets’ TED talk “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World” blew my mind back in 2008, I’ve watched the movement of using mushrooms for urban agriculture, pest control, medicine, soil remediation, and much more spread like mycelium through the green design community. So where has this long-deserved fungi renaissance taken us in the past few years since over 3 million views of Stamets’ propounding on the topic? Beyond the plentiful backyard mushroom farmers, mycoremediation—the use of fungi to break down or remove a range of pollutants from the environment—is being applied to contaminated sites to remediate a range of toxins, from typical stormwater runoff to industrial oil spills.
Some of the targeted pollutants which grass-roots guerillas and PhD academics alike have been experimenting with removing through mycoremediation include: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and fecal coliform bacteria. Various research projects have shown high percentages of removal of these contaminants from soil and water using various fungal species.
Fungal mycelia use enzymes and acids to break down elements of plant fiber and apply the same process to break down chemicals, especially components of petroleum, often into carbon dioxide and water. Many studies show the fruiting mushroom bodies don’t retain the toxic pollutants, but as in phytoremediation, it’s typically not recommended to combine mushroom farming for edible consumption and pollutant remediation, especially if heavy metals are present. However, the mushrooms and especially their substrate media are very valuable as compost after pollutants are processed.