9 Surprising Things Fungus Can Decompose

Fungus has an amazing ability to decompose organic matter. But it doesn’t stop at leaves on the forest floor. Fungi can safely recycle a lot of different human waste and pollution.

How Decomposition Works

In biological terms, “organic” refers to any material that is made up of molecules containing carbon and hydrogen atoms. All living things are considered organic.

Fungi are able to decompose organic matter by producing specialized enzymes that break the hydrogen-carbon bonds holding it together. The original material is reduced to carbon dioxide gas, water and the mineral forms of nutrients like nitrogen.

You may have seen how compost piles often shrink as they decompose. This is from the release of the carbon dioxide gas and water. You’re typically left with a fine-textured, black, nutrient-rich organic matter that is great for soils and treasured by gardeners.

Unfortunately, the majority of garbage that ends up in landfills is made up of organic matter. If these materials could be composted instead, it would remove a significant amount of the expense and pollution produced by landfills.

What Fungus Can Decompose

Mushrooms on a tree trunk

1. Paper

This may seem obvious, but it’s an opportunity that’s currently being missed. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, paper waste makes up over 31 percent of landfills. This is by far the largest portion of garbage that goes into landfills.

Fungi can decompose paper products such as cardboard, newspapers, magazines, food packages or even books. Gardening Know How has a great step-by-step process on composting cardboard, which could also be used for most other paper products.

2. Pesticides

Various fungal species have been found to degrade different pesticides, such as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which is very persistent in the environment. And long-term exposure to DDT causes the most significant health risks, such as cancer, hormone disruption and neurotoxic effects. A 2011 study was able to reduce the DDT levels in historically contaminated soil by 64 percent.

3. Paint

A 2012 study found that paint sludge can be effectively composted. Researchers added a compost starter culture and additional nutrients to paint sludge that contained melamine formaldehyde resin. These resins are a type of plastic material that make products like laminate counter tops and paints more durable. They can be toxic when released into the environment.

The researchers found the resin was 73-95 percent completely degraded at the end of 147 days. The final paint compost was enriched with nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients from the broken down melamine resin.

4. Glues and Adhesives

Chemical glues and adhesives are another carbon-based material that can be decomposed. A study published in Arid Soil Research and Rehabilitation found that glue waste mixed with rice straw was well composted after 128 days. The researchers suggested it was a cheap and practical way to convert agricultural and industrial waste into a beneficial compost product.

5. Plastics

Plastics are made from petroleum, which is the remains of decomposed microscopic creatures from the oceans of the Mesozoic Era. That means plastics are biologically organic and can be consumed by fungi.

A Yale University study used various strains of fungi to decompose polyester polyurethane, a type of plastic commonly used for clothing. Interestingly, they were able to decompose the material under aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Fungi typically work better in well-aerated conditions. The fact they could also work in areas without air circulation is a hopeful sign for dealing with deeply buried landfill waste.

6. Clothing

In addition to decomposing plastic-based fabrics, fungi can also recycle cotton, linen, blue jeans, leather and most other materials used in clothing. These are all made from natural, compostable products.

7. Oil-based Fuels

Gasoline, jet fuel, engine oil and many other fuels and industrial lubricants are made from petroleum. This means they’re fair game for fungi.

Paul Stamets is a mycologist (fungi specialist) committed to finding ways we can use fungi to improve our world. In 1998, he worked with the Washington State Department of Transportation and used mushrooms to detoxify soil from a truck maintenance yard. The yard’s soil was contaminated with diesel fuel and oil at around 20,000 parts per million (ppm) of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPHs). This was roughly the same concentration that was measured on the beaches after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The researchers inoculated a large pile of contaminated soil with a certain strain of oyster mushrooms. At the end of four weeks, the pile was covered with mushrooms and the soil itself had lost the black stain from the oil and no longer smelled like diesel fuel. After eight weeks, the TPHs had plummeted to 200 ppm.

After nine weeks, young plants started to grow in the same soil. The untouched, contaminated soil on the site remained lifeless, black and foul-smelling. Lab analysis of the mushrooms themselves showed no detectable petroleum residues.

8. Water Contamination

Fungi can also be used to filter water, a process known as mycofiltration. Certain species of fungi are capable of actively seeking out and preying on colonies of bacteria. This includes bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Listeria monocytogenes, which can both cause very serious illnesses when ingested.

Other fungal species have been shown to paralyze and consume parasites like Plasmodium falciparum, which causes malaria.

In addition, using fungi like these in water treatment and biofiltration systems can help control the toxins produced by large-scale animal farming. For instance, toxic levels of zinc and copper often accumulate in livestock feedlots as a by-product of manure production. A North Carolina study found that the fungus Aspergillus niger removed 91 percent of the copper and 70 percent of the zinc from treated swine effluent.

9. Human Bodies

The Infinity Burial Project, founded by Jae Rhim Lee, is currently developing unique strains of fungus that can safely decompose human tissue. The project will be offering burial “suits” that are embedded with the fungus. The fungi they are working on will also be able to degrade many of the toxins we collect in our bodies and store throughout our lives.

The developers suggest this will be a more ecologically-friendly form of burial as well as a way to promote greater acceptance of death and decomposition.

Sources:
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by Paul Stamets

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288 comments

Greta L
Greta Labout a month ago

thank you

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Olga N
Olga Nycz-Shirley1 months ago

TY

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Ruth S
Ruth S1 months ago

Thanks.

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Lisa Zarafonetis
Lisa Zarafonetis1 months ago

Thanks for the info.

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Philippa P
Philippa Powers1 months ago

Thanks.

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Olga Troyan
Olga T1 months ago

On a serious note, I think it's pretty impressive, especially as a way to reduce plastic pollution. I'm not so sure I want the fungus suit, though.

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Olga Troyan
Olga T1 months ago

What a great new method to cover up a crime by getting rid of a body. Thank you so much!

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson1 months ago

ty

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Marion Morin
Marion M1 months ago

merci

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Carol C
Carol C1 months ago

Wow - fascinating information - and hopeful! Thanks so much for this post!

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