USING FUNGUS TO CLEAN THE RIVER Scientist Tests Mushrooms to See If They Digest PCBs

By Alexander, Rachel | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), October 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

USING FUNGUS TO CLEAN THE RIVER Scientist Tests Mushrooms to See If They Digest PCBs


Alexander, Rachel, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


Surveying a shelf of mason jars filled with dirt and fungi, Heidi Montez sounds not unlike a proud parent.

"It's doing really well. You can see all that white growth is the healthy mycelium," she said, pointing to a jar holding wild oyster mushroom.

Montez is the scientist behind what may be Spokane's most innovative approach to treating pollution in the Spokane River.

Her makeshift lab - a sparsely decorated room with a concrete floor in a large warehouse on North Ash Street - is trying to answer an unusual question: Could mushrooms hold the key to removing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the stormwater that drains into the river?

Montez, who works for the Lands Council, is spending a year seeing whether some strains of wood-eating fungi might be able to eat PCBs, breaking them down into harmless carbon molecules.

Her work is funded by a $30,000 grant from the city.

"I don't know if anyone's tried to grow mushrooms in storm drain sludge before," she said.

PCB CHEMICALS HARD TO GET RID OF

PCBs are a family of man-made chemicals that were widely used in industrial work from the 1930s until 1979, when they were banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The chemicals, which are nonflammable and highly stable, were used as coolants, flame retardants and more.

But PCBs also carry a host of likely health risks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said PCBs are probable carcinogens, and evidence suggests that PCBs impair the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.

They're especially concerning in rivers because they bioaccumulate - building up in the tissues of insects, the fish that eat the insects and the humans who eat those fish.

The chemical properties that made PCBs ideal in industrial use have also made them difficult to clean up. They don't break down naturally, so cleanup usually means moving them out of the river.

"Most of the time we spend money moving PCBs from one place to another where they're less problematic," said Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city's utilities department.

Enter mushrooms.

STUDIES PROMISING

Forest-dwelling species of mushrooms produce enzymes to break down the tough lignin and cellulose molecules that act as structural support for many trees and plants. They're the organisms that help turn over nutrients in the forest, decomposing dead things so new life can take its place.

"If it weren't for these mushrooms, we'd be buried in miles of log," Montez said.

Some of those mushrooms have also shown promise breaking down tough pollutants, like petroleum byproducts and PCBs. A study by Czech scientists, published in the journal Chemosphere in 2012, found eight species of wood-eating fungi were able to break down at least some PCBs, with one species eating upward of 98 percent of the chemical.

"They're really good at breaking down difficult molecules," said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council.

In Spokane, PCBs enter the river through a number of different pathways. Though deliberately manufacturing PCBs is illegal, small amounts of the chemicals are produced inadvertently in many industrial processes involving chlorine, including creating the yellow dyes that go into road paint.

PCBs also remain in the soil at former industrial sites. In both cases, it's easy for the chemicals to wash into the river through stormwater.

Montez wants to take existing research on mushrooms and PCBs a step further. Her goal is to cultivate strains of fungi that can eat PCBs directly out of the dirt and other solids suspended in stormwater.

She's long been interested in fungi and has experience growing them for food and other uses. After spending time educating people around Spokane about PCBs in the river, she proposed the research project to Petersen at the Lands Council.

Experimenting with fungi can be a tough sell. …

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