Fungi: the pollution solution?
The decomposer abilities of fungi have provided the foundation for much of life on our planet. Having had a pivotal role in the evolution of life on Earth, can fungi also aid in its preservation, particularly in the face of increasing pollution and climate change?
Fungi are remarkably helpful organisms – breaking down organic matter, thriving in extreme environments and, and unique partnerships to exchange nutrients. Fungi therefore possess many qualities that make them one of nature's very own environmental heroes. These incredible organisms are able to break down and metabolise a wide range of organic and inorganic toxic substances, including chemicals in oil spills, heavy metals, dyes used in the fashion industry, pesticides, and even radioactive waste!
Heavy metals, which include the known carcinogens lead and arsenic, are amongst the most common pollutants produced by industry. Sadly, these extremely harmful toxins, often find their ways into the water system and the soil, and consequently into our bodies when we consume contaminated food and water.
Through their intricate foraging networks of underground mycelium, fungi can infiltrate polluted sites, absorb pollutants, and transform them into significantly less harmful by-products or transport them to places where other organisms can metabolise them. This natural remediation process, or mycoremediation, offers a sustainable alternative to conventional methods that often come with significant drawbacks.
The power of fungal mycelium has already been utilised in creating more sustainable and environmentally friendly substitutes for plastic packaging, building materials, and has even found its place in textile design and fashion. It is indeed a very exciting time to be a fungus!
In 2022, a collaborative soil remediation project between the Flete Estate in Plymouth, Exeter University’s Global System Institute and South Devon AONB (and other partners), was one of the first successful mycoremediation trials in the UK. The primary aim of this endeavour is to enhance water quality and promote soil ecology by effectively removing pollutants from sewage and agricultural run-offs through mycofiltration.
In the pilot experiments, sacks filled with mycelium were used to filter the water flowing downstream from a sewage-treatment plant. In addition to removing some significant amounts of toxins, the trial also resulted in an incredible 47% reduction of E. coli, a disease-causing bacterium, often found in the water.
Although, mycoremediation is still in its infancy, collaborative efforts like this one represent a significant step forward in environmental restoration. By leading the way towards the development of more sustainable, accessible, and affordable land management practices, fungi can certainly help in the struggle to preserve biodiversity and keep our planet clean.