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Vail Daily OnlineUSA - TELLURIDE - Mats of mushrooms could someday be used to clean up polluted mines, restore forest roads and perhaps even aid in managing beetle outbreaks, Washington-based researcher Paul Stamets said at the 24th annual mushroom festival in Telluride last month.
Stamets is among the leading proponents in a branch of bioengineering in which biological properties of fungi are being studied for a wide range of applications.
He is currently patenting a treatment for termites and carpenter ants that uses a fungus parasitic to those insects. Early tests show promising results and Stamets says he is close to using the product commercially.
He suggested similar techniques could someday prove a useful tool for more widespread forest management, such as helping to strengthen trees against insect infestation.
Some species of fungi can speed the breakdown of oil, while others act as hyper-accumulators of heavy metals. One mushroom found growing in the area around Chernobyl was found to concentrate radioactive elements to a much higher degree than surrounding background levels.
Stamets speculated that purposely using these properties in a tainted environment could help at least concentrate toxic substances and make them easier to manage. He said he expects to soon see results from recent research with regard to mushrooms and heavy metals sometimes found around abandoned mine sites.
In an ongoing test on a 160-acre parcel he owns in Canada, Stamets is restoring logging roads using a mulch fortified with mushroom "roots," the so-called mycelium - fibrous underground mats that weave together fields of mushrooms. The underground runners and webs help rebuild the ecosystem from the ground up, speeding growth of a organic carpet over the road scraped down to bare mineral soil.
With a large enough testing area, Stamets can compare his myco-remediation work against control areas to measure its effectiveness, and reported some early successes at the Telluride conference.
In similar experiments, Stamets used natural mushroom allies to aid in reforesting a logged area. Among seedling treated with the fungal process, about 10 percent showed increased growth over a control group, he said.
Despite the promise shown by some of the treatments, research in the area is sometimes overlooked, perhaps because of a generalized "cultural mycophobia," Stamets said.
Many types of fungi are "debris-field digesters," breaking down the trail of byproducts left by other species, Stamets explained. That makes them perfect allies in efforts to restore environmental damage, he concluded.