by Luz Grace Terranova
Using Petrol-eating Mycelium in the Ecuadorian Amazon to Clean-up Toxic Oil Wastes
The Mushroom: celebrated in infinite stories, enjoyed in billions of kitchens around the world, used for medicine and to invoke spiritual visions as long back as history can tell; it is a curiosity of collective lore and awe. Yet, the nearly supernatural properties of certain mushroom strains to restore damaged environments are lesser known. The mushroom — with all its power to make Alice grow and shrink in size throughout her adventures — is only the fruiting body of a larger organism with even more magic that transcends cultural and hallucinatory metaphor. In many cases hidden beneath the ground, fungi mycelium is actively breaking down toxins and transforming polluted ecosystems into healthy ones. What follows is my personal story of discovering mycelium’s promising hope for ecological renewal in one of the most contaminated regions on earth.
Branching from the base of mushrooms are thin, threadlike mycelia that communicate so much information between plants and trees that it has become known, due to the scholarship of mycologist Paul Stamets, as the neural network of the terrestrial biosphere. Mycelium is found in soil or other substrates, sometimes spreading beneath a forest floor as one gargantuan organism, such as in Oregon where a 2,400-acre contiguous growth has been recorded as the largest organism in the world.[i]Mycelium uses its reach to communicate vital information throughout the ecosystem. For example, if a tree at one end of a forest becomes sick, the mycelia can send this information to the other trees, so that they can boost up their immune systems and prevent contagious spread. As if that were not enough to demonstrate its intelligence, mycelium moves beyond being the connective internet-type network for forests, to conducting large-scale environmental restoration by neutralizing toxic wastes through digestive processes.[ii]
As decomposing agents, mycelia of certain mushroom species have the digestive systems to break down long, recalcitrant bonds of many organic pollutants produced by human beings. With proper knowledge of this appetite, mycologists have been learning how to feed toxic wastes such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons of oil wastes to mycelia in what plays out as a magic show of ecological transfiguration. Mycelium not only shows us how, but also shares with us the power to transform our toxic environments into once again thriving, healthy, abundant ecosystems.
This very trick of mushroom alchemy is what spurred me to travel with a mycology-centered eco-restoration team The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) to one of the most contaminated places in the world: a town in the Ecuadorian Amazon called Lago Agrio, literally translated as Sour Lake. Given this name in the late 1950s by Texaco it was changed from the original Ecuadorian name, Lago Manantial, meaning Source Lake, foreshadowing the demise of the primary rainforest and people living in the region for the sake of unregulated and exploitative oil extraction. I had long been aware of the toll oil extraction has had on the Ecuadorian Amazon, because my research as a cultural anthropology student had brought me to the region on two separate occasions prior. Interacting with locals about their experiences at a global center of oil production I learned about ongoing health and economic impacts on the community and I saw firsthand dozens of oil waste pits, blackened waterways, and countless abandoned farms. When I returned to the States and started to learn about permaculture and the promises of using mycelium to restore oil-polluted environments I was ready to return to Ecuador with new tools.
The oil-town of Lago Agrio sits within the home provenance of one of the largest environmental lawsuits in history. Taken to courts in 2003 by over 30,000 Ecuadorian residents, Chevron Texaco was put on trial for allegedly dumping 18.5 billion gallons of toxic oil wastes into open and unlined pits, and directly into streams and rivers in the region during its 20 years of operation in the region. These wastes currently sit in more than 600 open pits, bleeding toxins to all parts of the Amazon. Texaco´s legacy continues today in this region by many other petroleum companies with spills emptying into waterways, forcing whole Amazonian communities to have drinkable water shipped in by tank trucks or to relocate and rebuild their communities elsewhere (often only to be met once again with acid rain and contaminated groundwater).
The damages of this mechanistic destruction are innumerable, ranging from the obliteration of indigenous groups to the creation of a hot house in the very ecosystem that helps moderate Earth´s global temperature. At such a tremendous level of environmental destruction impacting the entire globe — as with all catastrophes of this scale — the question that holds most importance is how we, as the survivors that we are (and in some regard, the perpetuators), can begin the healing process of both the planet and of our own souls that have been stricken by this trauma. What if we were to give up our dependence on a lawsuit, government, or corporation to initiate this healing for us? What if we, as individuals and communities committed to this healing, were to begin to clean up these toxic waste pools out of our own initiative? AMP is holding ongoing investigations to determine the extent to which mycelium might provide the means to do just that.
As the enzymes secreted by certain fungi digest substrate (i.e., wood, straw, sawdust), they also break down many toxins that have chemical bonds similar to wood. Through this process, they can be acclimatized to digest toxins. Some mushroom strains are thus able to denature chemical toxins, such as petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorine, PCBs, dioxin, and many others (See Paul Stamets on “Mycoremediation and its Application to Oil Spills” for a more in-depth explanation of the use of mycelium in oil remediation.
In the case of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the greatest concern lies with petroleum hydrocarbons and with heavy metals associated with petrol contamination (High levels of zinc, cadmium, mercury, lead, chromium and arsenic have been recorded at many sites in the region[iii]). While petroleum hydrocarbons can be broken down into less toxic molecular compounds, heavy metals present a more complicated rehabilitation process. Heavy metals can become concentrated in mushrooms, and must be dealt with carefully. One notable technique involves extracting the heavy metals from the mushrooms, which can be recycled by companies specializing in metallurgy.[iv] A less invasive technique is to plant the mushrooms at precise proportions under plants and trees, facilitating a process of break down and absorption of the metals at levels deemed safe.
There are many factors that account for the success or failure of mycoremediation projects. Factors include, but are certainly not limited to, matching the appropriate mushroom species to the pollutant, providing the most suitable substrate/food source, and applying the most effective ratio of mycelium to substrate to toxin(s). AMP has been meticulously monitoring plant performance tests, substrate and mycelium growth percentages, and soil health for over three years in an effort to build the mycological knowledge base particular to this local ecological regime. As an immediate and long-term solution, Nicola Peel of AMP has been installing rainwater tanks with sand and charcoal filters for local residents who have lost access to clean drinking water as a result of the oil contamination in these areas. 
Opening an in-situ experiment set up by the AMP team one year prior to my visit in January 2010, we were able to glimpse the first indication that mycoremediation with Pleurotus (oyster) species could work in the Amazon. While mycoremediation has been applied with great success in temperate regions- most notably by Paul Stamets in North America — it has never before been experimented with in the Amazonian biosphere until now. In this initial qualitative experiment, two large samples of toxic soils had been piled along the edge of an oil-contaminated flood zone — one treated with mycelium and substrate, and the control only with substrate. One year later, the pile that was not treated with mycelium has maintained its high toxicity in which the crude could still be seen and smelled and had an oily feel. The soil treated with the mycelium, on the other hand, neutralized the toxins, inviting a plethora of insects and worms to make it their home, and had no evidence of crude remaining.
Mycoremediation presents a benign, inexpensive, and sustainable solution that locals can immediately implement in their own backyards with minimal work. Without having to wait for a government or a corporation to take action, individuals may gain agency with this method. Part of AMP’s long-term vision is to provide myceliated substrate to any person interested in doing research on soil or water clean up in the area. In December 2009, the AMP team installed its first two mycelial lenses, which are compost-like piles of mycelium and substrate working as a lending library of spawn by reproducing mycelium. Mushroom mycelium can be considered immortal if it always has enough food. Therefore, as long as it is continually fed and the humidity and temperature stay within its comfort zone, the mycelial lens will indefinitely initiate mycelial growth. Team leader and mycologist, Mia Rose Maltz says, “Tapping into the exponential power of mycelial growth, we are able to provide a cost-effective solution to remedy some of the problems that oil extraction has inflicted on this landscape.”
More data is needed to determine the extent and scale to which mycoremediation is appropriate for oil waste clean up in the Amazon region of Ecuador. As of now, the AMP team is interested in mycoremediation as a low-cost, immediate solution for areas like backyards and farms.
AMP has ongoing projects and is always happy to connect with inspired minds. The next Mycoremediation course to be held in Ecuador will be scheduled for Summer 2011. Current work is also needed in the Gulf. Please contact [email protected] for more information. See also Nicola Peel’s film Blood of the Amazon.
Teaser image by Danny Newman.
 Different sources have documented varying statistics on the exact number of oil waste pits. The majority of the literature, including documents presented at the trial, estimate approximately 600-900 oil waste pits in the Oriente región of Ecuador.
 For more information on Peel’s work visit: eyesofgaia.com. Watch her short documentary on using mycelium for remediating the Amazon, A Solution to Pollution.