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Scientists harness mushrooms to detoxify soil and protect waterways after wildfires

Posted at 3:37 PM, Mar 23, 2022

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — As wildfires burn hotter, bigger, and more frequently, toxic chemicals from burnt homes are polluting the soil and threatening public water systems.

To help forests recover faster, a team of researchers in Northern California is harnessing the power of mushrooms.

“I have a lot of belief in the resilience of nature to recover, but what we’re experiencing now is so new, so different and so scary," said Maya Elson, manager for the Post-Fire Biofiltration Initiative at CoRenewal. “These fires are not like the natural fires that have been occurring for thousands of years."

Able to break down and recycle organic material, fungi play a critical role in restoring ecosystems. They can also help remove or detoxify chemicals and heavy metals from soil, a technique known as mycoremediation.

CoRenewal is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ecosystem restoration, health and healing, and sustainable community dynamics. In addition to advancing science, the team says the research is personal.

"People are dying. People are losing their homes. And our ecosystems are really threatened right now," said Elson. “It was right in my backyard, how could I not try and do something here?"

In response to the CZU Lightning Complex Incident in 2020, CoRenewal began developing strategies for filtering, mitigating, and biodegrading toxic debris and ash runoff before it enters fragile ecosystems and waterways. They're studying the efficacy of inoculating straw wattles with a native fungus for capturing and filtering ash below homes burned by wildfires.

Elson says fungi has been shown to break down some of the petroleum-based toxins left behind by wildfires. She says their research is among the first to rigorously examine this method for wildfire remediation.

“Heavy metals are also huge concern. There's a lot of lead, there's a lot of chromium and cadmium, mercury. All sorts of stuff in homes that becomes available in the environment," said Elson.

While these can’t be broken down, Elson says oyster mushrooms can accumulate heavy metals into their fruiting bodies. Once deployed to a burn zone, the mushrooms would later be removed and taken to a hazardous waste facility.

“What we're really trying to do is just mimic the natural fire recovery processes and amplify those in places where really unnatural fires are happening," said Elson.

According to the USGS, about 80% of the U.S.' freshwater resource originates on forested land, and more than 3,400 communities rely on public drinking-water systems located in watersheds on forest lands. But the agency says studying wildfires and their impacts on watersheds are challenging due to their unpredictability, extensive damage, and a lack of pre-existing information to which the response can be compared.

“We’re really trying to deeply listen to the land and what the land wants," said Elson.

Working on a shoestring budget with volunteer staff, CoRenewal is looking for additional funding to help advance research.

“When your mother is struggling, you go and help, right? Our mother right now, the earth, is really struggling," said Elson. “It's not even a question. We don't have a choice."