The Plan To Mop Up The Worlds Biggest Oil Spills With Mushrooms
The dinner plate-sized mushroom encircles its host tree like a bloated tumor. I’m about to snap a photo of the beast when something flickers in the corner of my eye. Faint, smoky wisps give off the impression of smoldering coals. At this very instant, the fungus is releasing billions of microscopic spores.
I feel as though I’m witnessing one of nature’s secret acts, something an urbanite like me was only supposed to see on National Geographic. With a lush green canopy overhead, the hum of insects and warbles of tropical birds filling my ears, the moment would be Avatar-worthy, save one jarring detail: The air reeks of petroleum.
That’s because I’m standing over a patch of blackened, crude-soaked ground. I’m here in the Sucumbíos province of northeast Ecuador with Donald Moncayo, a community organizer with the Amazon Defense Coalition. This spot, Moncayo says, holds a special significance. It’s the first in a series of nearly a thousand toxic waste pits that litter this remote part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, festering like open sores under the fierce equatorial sun.
“All the pools are in direct contact with the water and the soil,” said Moncayo, who has been taking visitors on his so-called ‘toxic tours’ since the early 2000s. “There are no membranes, no barriers, nothing. All of this was intentional.”
These toxic waste pools-locals call them ‘piscinas’-are the legacy of Texaco’s twenty six-year stint extracting oil from Sucumbíos. (Texaco has since become a subsidiary of Chevron.) The spills have been poisoning the soil, water, vegetation and people of the region for over twenty years.
Credit: Amazon Mycorenewal Project
Not ten meters away, one of the most amazing mushrooms I’d ever laid eyes on-and, after years as a microbial ecologist, I’ve seen my fair share-is breathing new life into the forest. To me there’s something serendipitous about this, because I’ve traveled to Sucumbíos to meet a group of scientists and activists who hold the radical notion that fungi are the key to empowering the victims of a horrific environmental disaster to clean up their land.
“Oil companies don’t teach people the solutions to their problems, because that would be an admission of their own wrongdoing.” Lexie Gropper, the program coordinator for the Sucumbíos Alliance of Bioremediation and Sustainability (ABSS), told me. “They prefer people who lack the power to make a change.”
But Gropper believes that change is coming. In less than a year, the exuberant, Spanish-speaking 24-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia has rolled together enough local and international resources to lay the groundwork for an organization dedicated to improving the health of humans and the soiled Amazonian environment through fungi. A collaboration between the US-nonprofit theAmazon Mycorenewal Project, and the Instituto Superior Tecnológico Crecermas (ISTEC), Sucumbíos’s only higher education institute, ABSS aspires, over the coming years, to transform a humble agricultural university into Ecuador’s primary hub for mushroom cultivation, distribution, and education.
The project’s aim? Nothing short of cleaning up the one of the world’s largest oil disasters -using giant, petroleum-gobbling fungi.
Credit: Amazon Mycorenewal Project
There are an estimated 1.5 to 5 million species of fungi: Yeasts and molds along with mushroom-producing macrofungi. It’s a clan of bizarre creatures that spend most of their lives unseen, sweating out a plethora of digestive enzymes that decompose the dead and recycle elements for the living. Some fungi use threadlike mycelia to worm their way into the soil’s smallest cracks and crevices, unlocking nutrients which they trade plants for carbon. When crusading mycologist Paul Stamets waxes poetic about fungi, he calls them “the neurological network of nature,” for their ability to knit together the lives of plants, animals, and the Earth itself. He’s right.
When it comes to mopping up our nastiest environmental messes, fungi may be one of the best hopes we’ve got. Certain species, including the oyster mushroom, produce enzymes that break down the tough, aromatic hydrocarbons found in petroleum, in addition to soaking up heavy metals like mercury. Deep in the Amazon, scientists uncovered a fungus that eats polyurethane plastic. Stamets, meanwhile, is involved in an effort to clean up the nuclear wasteland around Japan’s Fukushima reactor using radiation-loving mushrooms. And these are just the highlights; most experts will agree that we’ve barely scratched the surface of Kingdom Fungi’s potential.