Grassroots mycoremediation in the Bay area.

16 November 2007

If you've been watching the news these past few days, you've probably come across the bruhaha over a fuel tanker crashing into the San Francisco Bay Bridge, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of petrochemical fuel into the water and forcing a number of beaches to close, to say nothing of the impact upon the environment. San Francisco, long a haven for the unconventional, unusual, and inventive, has birthed an unusual and effective method for cleaning up and disposing of the spilled fuel: Pads made of human hair and oyster mushroom mycelia. The principle underlying the effort is a simple one: Human hair has an amazing capacity to absorb oil of all kinds, from the fatty compounds produced by the skin, which serve to keep hair supple and untangled to motor oil that happens to be sprayed in your face the first time you try to change the oil in your car yourself (don't ask). It's a simple matter to go around to hair stylists and salons and bag all of the hair that would otherwise be swept up and thrown in the trash. This then leaves the problem of disposing of the fuel after it's been sopped up, a task accomplished by the oyster mushrooms. Petrochemicals, toxic though they may be, are still organic compounds in that they're largely composed of the same elements as lifeforms as we know them (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, et cetera). Mushrooms and fungi in general occupy the degenerative role in the planet's ecosystems, which is to say that they are responsible for the decay of dead organic material, which returns nutrients and simple chemical compounds to the soil for re-use.

In this particular example, the oyster mushroom mycelia are seeded in layers with the oil-soaked mats of hair and allowed to develop. The mushrooms break down both the hair and the petrol to fuel their growth and fix the toxic compounds in such a way that they are no longer harmful (or at least are far less dangerous to the environment than before) as a side effect. As it turns out, oyster mushrooms have a knack for digesting petrochemicals like oil and various fuels, which is why they were selected. I'd call this a sterling example of grassroots mycoremediation, or as Gibson once put it "The street finds its own uses for things."