A couple of summers ago, I chanced upon a fantastic mushroom: Amanita muscaria. It was part of a colony that sprouted near the edge of a field. Beautiful and toxic, the mushrooms were busy doing what all fungi do: decomposing organic matter.
Fungi are so adept at decomposing that scientists are learning how to exploit this ability to rehabilitate ecosystems degraded by pollution and fire. Called mycoremediation, this process may become an essential tool in our never-ending quest to clean up after ourselves.
Why mushrooms? Let’s explore!
A (very) brief history
Mushrooms have been around a long time. A recent study suggests they first appeared about 800 million years ago when multicellular animals first formed on our barren planet. As nature’s decomposer, mushrooms played a crucial role in breaking down rock and organic matter, extracting nutrients while creating decaying material. And that’s what they have been doing for many, many eons.
What are mushrooms?
Neither plant nor animal, fungi belong to the kingdom Fungi, which encompasses 144,000 organisms like molds, yeasts, mildews, and mushrooms. Mushrooms, actually, are a type of fungi that produce fruit. And that fruit is just the tip of the fungi iceberg.
A mushroom is a mass of filaments called hyphae. The cap and stem are the fruit, and belowground, the hyphae fan out Medusa-like, forming branches called mycelium. The hyphae release enzymes into the substrate (wood or soil), which break down the material and free locked-up nutrients. The mycelium absorb some nutrients but not all; nearby organisms gobble up the remainder. Nothing goes to waste.
The magic of mycoremediation
Because mushrooms have been around so long, they developed a panoply of enzymes capable of decomposing anything that nature throws at them. Couched within these enzymes is an army of acids that demolish plant fibers, especially cellulose and lignin. These tough compounds are why trees soar, and woody plants withstand rot.
Molecularly, cellulose and lignin are composed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen. Structurally, these chains resemble the hydrocarbon chains in pollution. The magic to mycoremediation is matching fungi with specific contaminates. There are perhaps 3.8 million species of fungi, but only 3 percent have been cataloged.
Some species of fungi can neutralize toxic gases, feedlot waste, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, or petroleum. Some thrive in different conditions; others excel in one. Varied and extraordinary, they can filter toxins out of runoff, rivers, or oceans; absorb pollutants from soil; and decay plastic waste.
A panacea they are not. Mushrooms are efficient but slow. They break down or absorb most of the toxins, but not all. They are amazingly awesome and can repair our world, but funding is scarce. Mycoremediation is an ugly stepchild in academics, so citizen scientists do most of the research. Some genuinely are scientists, but most aren’t—and that is working against them.
Some of these “buts” can be fixed; some can’t. Instead of being deterred, we should be encouraged to learn more about mycoremediation better, to see what it’s capable of.
Here’s a thought: About 300 million years ago, Earth’s coal formation process slowed considerably. Drying up swamps were thought to be the cause; recent research suggests another possibility. At about the same time, mushrooms learned how to break down lignin.
If mushrooms could slow down a worldwide carbon process on their own, imagine what they can do with our help.
Alexopoulos, C. John, David Moore, and Vernon Ahmadjian. “Fungus.” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 27, 2020.
Elkins, Jordan. “Mycoremediation 101: How Mushrooms Can Save the World!” Mushroom Revival, May 30, 2021.
“Mycelium—The Future Is Fungi.” The Conscious Club, October 31, 2017.
Plumb, Taryn. “Mushroom Extracts: The Mycelium vs. Fruiting Body Dispute.” North Spore, October 14, 2020.
Swaffar, Wes. “Four Interesting Facts about Mushrooms in Our National Forests.” National Forest Foundation, 2022.