"Mycofiltration," I said.
Mycelium, the interwoven mesh “root system” of mushrooms, can help us keep our waters clean.
Photo by Tricia Bergstue
"Mushrooms. Using mycelium to filter runoff from - you probably don't know what mycelium is either ..."
Sometimes it's difficult to be a biologist. You get so excited about things that no one around you understands. Not only do they not understand, they can't figure out why you're so excited about something like mushrooms, and they think you're weird. I suppose that's why most of my friends are biologists and nature nerds. My people; the only ones who understand me.
Well, I'm going to explain why I'm so excited about mushrooms, but first I have to say that I've never really liked mushrooms. I just can't bring myself to eat them. As such, I never cared much about them. However, despite my aversion to the idea of ingesting them, as you'll see, they have recently become an object of fascination to me.
Now I'm going to start in with the science-speak. I'll try to make it as painless as possible. Let's begin by defining the title term. The prefix "myco" refers to fungi. Hence, mycofiltration is the filtering of a substance using fungi.
"But how can you filter anything through a toadstool?" you might be wondering.
You can't. (Or maybe you can. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.) That's not what I'm talking about. For the "how" of mycofiltration, we have to go underground. See, the mushrooms that we're familiar with are actually only a tiny part of a much larger organism. The mushrooms themselves are just the fruit. Underneath the mushrooms, there is an extensive underground network of filaments called hyphae that make up the roots of the mushroom, so to speak. Collectively, this network of "roots" is called the "mycelium." According to Paul Stamets, an authoritative mycologist (fungi expert), a single square inch of mycelium contains over 8 miles of filaments, all intricately woven together to form a sort of mesh. This mesh is the part of the fungus that can act as a filter. But this is no ordinary filter. This mesh is alive. The mycelium acts on substances passing through it, breaking them down chemically and thus removing them from the environment.
In one experiment, mycelium from oyster mushrooms was placed in oil-saturated soil. The mycelium was able to filter out the oil by breaking its chemical bonds. In the process, the oyster mushrooms thrived, attracting insects. The insects attracted birds. The birds left seeded droppings in the soil, which grew into plants. Soon the area was lush with flora and fauna, and you'd never know it had been drenched in oil. These common mushrooms have the potential to clean up oil spills.
Bacteria, in particular E. coli, is another substance which mycelium is effective at removing. Stamets installed a channel of mycelium filtration bags on his farm in order to filter runoff. The system worked to improve water quality well enough that it attracted the attention of the local health department. Recently, he was awarded an EPA grant to further explore the idea of mycofiltration of urban storm water.
These functions of mycelium have incredible potential to help us keep our waters clean. Mushrooms are inexpensive to obtain, and best of all, they're naturally occurring, as opposed to water treatments involving costly chemicals. Hopefully it's a little clearer now why I've become so fascinated and excited by mushrooms. And maybe now you are too.
For more information and videos on Paul Stamets and mycofiltration, visit the Conservancy's Facebook page at facebook.com/chautauquawatershed. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a private, nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. To sign up for e-news updates, find out more information on watershed care or to support CWC's conservation activities, visit chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.