Years ago, a company called Battelle Laboratories paired up with an American mycologist (i.e. study of Fungi) Paul Stamets to conduct a series of tests. Four piles of dirt were completely saturated with petroleum. One was left alone as the control. The second was treated with bacteria, the third pile was treated with enzymes. Lastly, the fourth pile was treated with mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus.
Tarps were thrown over the piles, and six weeks allowed to pass. Upon removing the tarps, three of the piles remained “dead, dark and stinky”, but the fungi-treated pile was covered in hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms. In another 2 weeks, the contamination ratio of the soil was tested and found to have been reduced from 10,000 parts per million to a mere 200. The fungi pile stood as the only pile now completely covered in grass. The oyster mushrooms literally consumed the petroleum, cleaning the soil and making life possible again, a true ‘gateway species’.
Why does it work? Life, as we know it, began with plants growing around the shorelines, and animals following suit soon after. However, Fungi were actually the first organisms to arrive on land, with plants following several hundred million years later.
Fungi breath like mammals, in that they inhale oxygen and produce carbon dioxide. They can produce oxalic acid along with other acids and enzymes to grab minerals absorbed from rocks. Starting as mycelium, oil is absorbed by breaking down the carbon-hydrogen bonds and re-manufacturing them into carbohydrates – fungal sugars.
Since the discovery, Battelle Labs and Paul Stamets have embarked on several practical applications. In fact, Stamets has become somewhat of a legend in biological circles, with his myriad of practical applications utilizing knowledge of fungi.
In one program, burlap sacks were created and saturated with mycelium. These sacks were then be placed downstream from a farm or factory producing toxic wastes, and effective habitation restoration took place, waste water was cleaned as it came into contact with the sacks.
In 2007, the oil spill in San Francisco Bay was cleaned in part using hair combined with Oyster mushrooms. The hair acted as a natural oil absorbent, sponging up the oil slick. The mats were about the size of a door mat, allowed to absorb a thick coating of oil, and then treated with oyster mushrooms. The mat would be reduced to nutrient-rich compost in roughly 12 weeks. Paul Stamets donated about $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms for the effort. “The industrial potential of fungi has not yet been realized.” says Stamets, “Not even close.”