For many people, mushrooms can be a healthy, tasty addition at mealtime. But along the Lake Erie shoreline south of Buffalo, the science of mushrooms is being used in an innovative way – as an environmentally-safe method to reduce harmful bacteria in a stream near the beach at Lake Erie State Park.
At the beginning of this decade, tests of the stream and water at the beach by the State Parks Water Quality Unit were showing consistently high levels of e. coli, a bacteria found in fecal matter which can severely sicken those who have been exposed.
The sand and cobble beach in Chautauqua County had been closed to swimming for several years due to a combination of high bacterial levels and fiscal constraints. Testing indicated that the problem likely was being caused by faulty septic systems or unsewered properties upstream, although additional contamination from animals could not be ruled out as another potential source.
While there are mechanical and chemical techniques to filter such harmful bacteria from water, in 2014 Water Quality staff decided to test an innovative mushroom-based system developed by Fungi Perfecti, a Washington-state based company with a long research history into fungus and mushrooms, a scientific field known as mycology.
Company founder and owner Paul Stamets is a nationally- and internationally-recognized expert and promotes innovative uses for mushrooms in bioremediation and medical therapies. He even entered the realm of popular culture when creators of the latest Star Trek franchise, which started in 2017 on CBS All Access, named the ship’s science officer after him as part of the use of a a mushroom-based propulsion system for the Starship Enterprise.
Meanwhile, back here in New York State and with funding support from the federal Great Lake Restoration Initiative, water quality staffers at State Parks installed a Stamets-designed mycofiltration system into this small creek at the Park.
The filtration system uses large plastic containers called totes that contain a mixture of wood chips and mycelium (the tiny threadlike vegetative part of fungi that fruits as mushrooms) that allow water to pass through. This allows the mycelium mixture to absorb bacteria from contaminated water as it flows past.
So far, the test results seem promising. E. coli levels downstream of the filtration system have dropped and water quality at the beach has improved, although outside factors, including improvements in the surrounding watershed, may have contributed.
The mycelium in the totes were reinoculated – another way of saying reimplanted and reinvigorated – in 2016 and 2019. Data from this project is being shared with Fungi Perfecti to assist in their research and development of their system.
Said Renee Davis, director of research and development at Fungi Perfecti, “We are proud of the contributions that fungal mycelium has been able to make for Lake Erie State Park and the surrounding ecosystems. Though we still face challenges with scalability of this technology, the applications are promising. We are closely studying the aspects of fungal metabolism that drive these effects, particularly the secretion of specialized compounds from mycelium into the environment.”
She added, “New potential applications have also arisen for bioretention and stormwater. For us, this project is an example of the possibilities that emerge when we look at nature—particularly fungi—in a new, creative, and innovative way. We hope this is the first of many projects to come using mushroom mycelium for water quality.”
Currently, this is the only State Park where this chemical-free, ecologically-safe method is being tested, although it could be introduced into the Finger Lakes region if a suitable location can be found.
Cover Shot: NYS Parks crews service the mycofiltration unit in Lake Erie State Park in 2016.
See a technical display of the project here
Hear Fungi Perfecti Founder Paul Stamets give a TED lecture on the potential uses of mushrooms.
Stamets’ awards include Invention Ambassador (2014-2015) for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Mycologist Award (2014) from the North American Mycological Association (NAMA), and the Gordon & Tina Wasson Award (2015) from the Mycological Society of America (MSA).
Currently, Stamets is testing extracts of rare mushroom strains at the NIH (National Institutes of Health/Virology) and with Washington State University/United States Department of Agriculture against a wide panel of viruses pathogenic to humans, animals and bees.
Read what local Capital Region entrepreneur Eben Bayer, owner of Ecovative Design, a mushroom-based packaging and development business based in Green Island, has to say about the scientific potential of mycelium.
Check out the Mushroom Blog at Cornell University.
Post by April Brun and Gabriella Cebada Mora, NYS Parks Water Quality Unit