Mycoremediation, a phrase coined by Paul Stamets, is a form of bioremediation, the process of using fungi to degrade or sequester contaminants in the environment. Stimulating microbial and enzyme activity, mycelium reduces toxins in-situ. Some fungi are hyperaccumulators, capable of absorbing and concentrating heavy metals in the mushroom fruit bodies.
One of the primary roles of fungi in the ecosystem is decomposition, which is performed by the mycelium. The mycelium secretes extracellular enzymes and acids that break down lignin and cellulose, the two main building blocks of plant fiber. These are organic compounds composed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen, structurally similar to many organic pollutants. The key to mycoremediation is determining the right fungal species to target a specific pollutant. Certain strains have been reported to successfully degrade the nerve gases VX and sarin.
There are many factors that affect the rate and ability for mushrooms to break down toxins. The first of which is the physical nature of the hydrocarbons. Generally, contaminants that are molecularly simpler are easier to break down than more complicated ones. Temperature also controls the rate at which contaminants are broken down. Low temperatures slow the process and warm temperatures speed it up. Fungi prefer a pH of 4 to 5, that is they prefer a pH that is slightly more acid that a neutral pH which is 7. Oxygen is also essential to fungal metabolism. The initial step of hydrocarbon degrading involves adding oxygen to the hydrocarbon, and so a lack of oxygen in the environment slows the process (Singh 2006).
In an experiment conducted in conjunction with Dr. S. A. Thomas, a major contributor in the bioremediation industry, a plot of soil contaminated with diesel was inoculated with mycelia of oyster mushrooms; traditional bioremediation techniques (bacteria) were used on control plots. After four weeks, more than 95% of many of the PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) had been reduced to non-toxic components in the mycelial-inoculated plots. It appears that the natural microbial community participates with the fungi to break down contaminants, eventually into carbon dioxide and water. Wood-decay fungi are particularly effective in breaking down aromatic pollutants (toxic components of petroleum), as well as chlorinated compounds (certain persistent pesticides; Battelle, 2000).
In 2007 a similar method was used in San Francisco. Oil had contaminated the shoreline after a cargo ship spilled 58,000 gallons of fuel. Hair mats, resembling S.O.S. pads the size of a doormat, acted as sponges to soak up spilled oil. They were then collected and layered with oyster mushroom and straw. The mushrooms broke down the oil and in several weeks the resulting soil was good enough to be used to for roadside landscaping.
The concept of mycoremediation was explored in the 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, where vast tracts of fungal forest rehabilitate the planet after catastrophic human polluting and apocalypse.
According to Paul Stamets the future of Mycoremediation lies in Mycological Response Teams. These teams would consist of knowledgeable and trained people who would set up centers that would use mycoremediation techniques to recycle and rebuild healthy soil in the area. This begins by spreading awareness and information in regards to the benefits of mycoremediation.
- May, Meredith (November 14, 2007). "Hair and mushrooms create a recipe for cleaning up oily beaches". San Francisco Chronical. Retrieved 2013-05-08.
- "The Petroleum Problem". Fungi Perfecti. June 03, 2010. Retrieved 2013-05-08.
- Stamets, Paul. undated. "Helping the Ecosystem through Mushroom Cultivation." Adapted from Stamets, P. 1998. "Earth's Natural Internet." Whole Earth Magazine, Fall 1999.
- Thomas, S.A. 2000. "Mushrooms: Higher Macrofungi to Clean Up the Environment", Battelle Environmental Issues, Fall 2000.
- Singh, Harbhajan (2006). Mycoremediation: fungal bioremediation. New York: Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 0-471-75501-X.
- Mycotransformation of organic and inorganic substrates (Gadd 2004)
- Field Demonstrations of Mycoremediation for Removal of Fecal Coliform Bacteria and Nutrients in the Dungeness Watershed, Washington (Thomas, S. et al. 2009)
- Evaluation of Isolated Fungal Strain from e-waste Recycling Facility for Effective Sorption of Toxic Heavy Metal Pb (II) Ions and Fungal Protein Molecular Characterization- a Mycoremediation Approach (Rajeshkumar, 2011)
-  Toxic cadmium ions removal by isolated fungal strain from e-waste recycling facility (Kumar et al., 2012)