Could Oyster Mushrooms Help Clean the Gulf?

Caption oil rig by Shutterstock.com

Offshore Oil Rig Drilling Platform credit Shutterstock.com.

Is it just me, or have the days since the Deepwater Horizon explosion blew a hole into a pipe deep in the Gulf of Mexico, a catastrophe that has since been confirmed the worst oil spill in US history, played out like an extra dark episode of that Amy Pohler and Seth Meyer’s “REALLY?” bit on Saturday Night Live’sWeekend Edition?

The “top kill” didn’t work? Really? The “junk shot?” (And who is coming up with these names, by the way?) They're pouring thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants into the Gulf to counter the oil spewing forth? Those chemicals are highly toxic and possibly creating plumes, increasing danger to coral reefs and other sealife? The EPA didn’t test them until after BP had started using them? It took the president how long to issue an apparently toothless moratorium on off-shore drilling? People are getting haircuts all over the country, for nothing? It took the EPA how long to finally demand BP switch to a less toxic dispersant?

August??? I mean…it’s crazy, right?

This might sound crazy too, but maybe mushrooms would be a better deal than these chemical dispersants. That’s right, mushrooms. I thought it was crazy, too, the first time I heard about it, about 10 or 15 years ago. In fact, that’s the only thing I remember about that first time I heard about it, and I wish I could remember which of my radical friends had mentioned it to me because I would apologize for not having believed it back then and for not having written about it sooner.

In fact, mushrooms were proven back in the late 1990s to be a useful tool in cleaning toxic soil, even soil contaminated by diesel. Watch Paul Stamets, leading mycologist, explain in his TED talk (video to the left).

...the Mycelium absorbs the oil, producing peroxidases that break carbon - hydrogen bonds, the same bonds that hold hydrocarbons together...

Stamets himself does not claim that mushrooms are the way forward — in a web page created to answer the questions writers like me (and hopefully, some decision-makers as well) are putting to him, he lays out what he knows and what he doesn’t. In the former category, the fact that by inoculating diesel-contaminated soil with oyster mushroom spores, he and scientists from Battelle Laboratories managed to cut the toxicity of the soil from 10,000 parts per million to less than 200, over a period of 16 weeks. In the latter category, major questions remain, like how salt water would affect the process.

What Stamets does call for is increased dissemination of knowledge of mycoremediation, more funding for research, Mycological Response Teams to respond to such environmental disasters as oil spills, and mushroom production centers strategically placed near population centers around the country, the waste from which could also be used as compost, or in times such as these, for remediation. Also, for people to spread the word. You can do this by sharing this blog post with your friends via Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned email.

Suffice it to say that you can’t clean up a mess that just keeps spilling, and who knows – maybe the dispersants are our best bet in a worst case scenario. But if we're taking shots in the dark, maybe we should be funding research toward more eco-friendly solutions to eco disasters. Mycoremediation probably won’t ever make any money for BP, or even friends of BP, but it wouldn’t hurt to look into it.

Really.

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