Turkey tail might be the new magic mushroom. Not for its ability to make someone grow larger or smaller, but for its transformative ability to filter pollutants like e.coli out of waterways.
Colchester’s most recent stormwater utility project uses mycoremediation, a relatively young natural science that uses fungi like the turkey tail mushroom, to remediate polluted environments. This pilot project focuses on the Smith Creek watershed, due to its high levels of phosphorus and non-human, non-pet e. coli, but the location of the installations remains undisclosed in order to prevent foot traffic or contamination.
The goal of the project is to plant buffers and filtration systems into specific areas, in order to help prevent excess nutrients and pathogens from contaminating the water.
According to the town’s stormwater director, Karen Adams, the technique has had well-demonstrated success in lab. “But the lab environment is much different from the outside world, with complications like weather, temperature, and human interaction,” she explained.
Turkey tail is one of two types of fungi being used in the project; both are native to the area.
Adams described the approach to the project as two-pronged. First, Adams and a team led by Jess Rubin, ecologist, educator, and researcher with University of Vermont, planted trees and shrubs that had been treated with mycorrhizae, a native fungus that can help plants uptake phosphorus-rich water through their roots. “We’re seeing if that helps reduce pollutants, since we’re essentially reducing the amount of water that we have,” said Adams.
The second element to the project uses a second fungus, trametes versicolor (turkey tail), to filter microorganisms like e. coli in the river. To accomplish this, the team filled maple logs with spores from the turkey tail mushroom and then sealed the holes with beeswax. They then placed these logs adjacent to the river, in order to be in contact with the water, while still providing enough air for the fungus to grow.
But the important part of the mushroom in this process is not the part we can see. Instead, it’s the vegetative part of the fungus known as mycelium that acts as the nutrient exchange network.
“The mushroom itself is just the fruit. That’s what we see and that’s what we think embodies the whole mushroom, but really it’s a network of fibers that live in the soil,” described Adams. “That’s how the organisms communicate with each other. Sort of like their internet, if you will.”
Adams first heard about the fungi-based technology when she met Rubin, the Creative Director of Mycoevolve and UVM researcher. Rubin has been studying fungi throughout her career, but focused in on mycoremediation and its use as green infrastructure four years ago.
“It is relatively inexpensive, relatively flexible,” said Rubin of mycoremediation and filtration as a green infrastructure solution for improving environmental health.
By matching fungi to toxin, Rubin says, different types of fungus can be used in environments with different types of pollution. While turkey tail and mycorrhizae might be more compatible with the Smith Creek watershed, which is polluted primarily with phosphorus and e. coli, Rubin says that there are examples of mycoremediation using oyster mushrooms, in order to uptake petro chemicals, like gasoline. In the Amazon basin, she mentioned a mycoremediation project working to uptake oil-polluted soil spilled from Texaco.
“Every fungus works differently,” she said.
The project’s timeline stretches over the course of this year and is set to end in June 2020. “We want to be able to observe this in all seasons,” said Adams, as one of the project’s major questions being asked is whether or not the installation can withstand Vermont’s freeze-thaw cycle.
In addition to the question of how the project will fair during the freeze-thaw cycle, Rubin also stresses the importance of examining the project’s long-term maintenance, what kinds of nutrients the fungi might be releasing into the river, and the project’s resilience through climate change—not just bad weather.
As far as results of the project go, Adams is hopeful. “Hopefully by next June, we’ll have some data to analyze that can give us indications of whether we’re seeing improvements, or whether it’s doing the same,” she said. “If we can find something that demonstrates a successful approach to removing e.coli from the waterway, that’s a pretty good win.”
Rubin, who is working on a number of projects like the Colchester one through her business, Mycoevolve, is eager to explore the data to see where the technology is working and where it needs improvement. “The hope is that this project provides peer reviewed data, protocol development, and a greater understanding of green infrastructure,” she said.
While Adams works mostly on the administrative, business side of stormwater, her first love is environmental science. She was excited to be freed from the office for a day and plant some trees instead.
She is cautiously hopeful. “It’s pretty cutting edge in terms of what we might be able to do with the results. But until we know under what conditions it’s most favorable, we really don’t know what the application of it might be. It will be useful to have strategies in our toolbox to try to remove it in a humane way that respects everyone else we’re sharing the watershed with,” Adams said.