The Fungus Among Us Is A Sustainability Workhorse

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Researchers have been poking around in the magical world of fungi for solutions to the global sustainability crisis, and CleanTechnica has a lot of catching up on that score. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the recent developments.

Photo by Tina Casey.

Sustainability & Smart Fungi

Coincidentally (or not, as the case may be), Nat Geo TV has been unspooling a new edition of the beloved science series Cosmos on Monday nights under the moniker Cosmos: Possible Worlds, and fungi make a special appearance in tonight’s episode.

Of course they do. After all, the title of tonight’s episode is “The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth.”

For any doubters out there, check out the 2012 study, “How brainless slime molds redefine intelligence” in the science journal Nature, and take note of the externalized spatial memory at work.

Come to think of it, slime molds are no longer characterized as fungi, so let’s turn to USA Today. In 2015 the news organization provided a nice plain language rundown on the special talents of mushrooms, including this tidbit:

“…believe it or not, the genetic composition of mushrooms is actually more similar to humans than plants.”

That’s cool, but not exactly what we’re looking for. USA Today also nailed down the sustainability angle:

“…Mushrooms are responsible for breaking down waste and recycling the usable nutrients back into the soil.”

Bingo.

The Sustainability Workhorse Under Foot, PFAS Edition

That breaking down waste thing has been getting a lot of attention lately. Researchers are even setting fungi loose on PFAS, an especially pesky group of chemicals that has been seeping into the environment as leachate from landfills.

Why fungi? Here’s an explainer from the US Department of Environmental Protection:

“PFAS have been found in solid waste, landfills and surrounding environmental media (soil, groundwater), leachates, landfill gas, wastewater effluents, and biosolids. However, current treatment options are limited, as many conventional treatment methods are ineffective.”

That’s where fungi could come in. A 2014 study in published in the journal Environmental Science Technology suggested that “wood-rotting fungi should be evaluated as potential candidates for the bioremediation of wastewater and groundwater contaminated with fluoroalkyl substances.”

It’s not clear whether or not the fungus approach will hold water. For example, in a 2016 study the US Department of Defense questioned the efficacy of fungal growth for PFAS bioremediation.

However there is plenty of room in the bioremediation tent for fungi. One 2018 study suggests that fungi could even “mine” for gold in wastewater.

Sustainability & The Plastic Problem

A more definitive avenue for fungal effort in the sustainability area is the replacement of petrochemicals — up to and including petrochemicals used in surfboards.

Fungi are also emerging as a source of pigment for next-generation solar cells, and they could play a role in the FLAM (aka Fungus Like Adhesive Material) supply chain.

On a somewhat less exotic level of the sustainability pyramid, mushrooms have also been examined for biofuel production.

The Plastic Pollution Solution

Speaking of mushrooms, the global fossil fuel industry has been hedging its energy-related bets with a pivot to petrochemical production and a focus on plastics.

That strategy appears to be on shaky ground as the world wakes up to the plastic pollution problem, particularly as it impacts ocean life.

Mushrooms already have a chance to shine in that field, as self-forming fungus product packaging begins to enter the marketplace.

Perhaps some day we really will have our sustainability cake and eat it, too.

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Image (screenshot): Via exclusive permission, Cosmos: Possible Worlds.


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3330 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey