Mycoremediation Fungal Bioremediation

Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

When fungi assist us in bioremediation we call it mycoremediation. Learn about the tricks fungi use to digest large, complex molecules and how they can grow in huge networks of interconnected cells.

Having Fun with Fungi in Bioremediation

Okay, so not exactly fun, really more like hard, necessary, ecosystem-saving work. But work can be fun, right? Fungi step in and take on some difficult tasks in the environment by breaking down big, complex molecules. Sometimes, these molecules are pieces of plants or dead animals, and fungi are accelerating their decomposition. Other times, the molecules are environmental pollutants that were either accidentally or intentionally released.

When fungi break down environmental contaminants, we call it mycoremediation. ''Myco-'' means related to fungi, and ''remediation'' means to restore or repair something to its original state. Mycoremediation is a type of bioremediation where living organisms (bacteria, fungi, or plants) are used to metabolize or remove a contaminant from the environment.

Digest Your Food before You Ingest Your Food

Have you ever been told to chew before you swallow? Well, fungi take things a bit further and actually start digesting their food before they even ingest it. The fungi diet is composed of pretty complex organic matter. Just imagine a piece of wood; the fibers are dense and, even at a molecular level, wood is difficult to digest. Fungi can't just absorb or transport these large molecules into their cells. Instead, fungi produce enzymes, protein molecules that bind to specific molecules and speed up chemical reactions, and they release these enzymes into the environment.

Usually, enzymes have limited flexibility and can only bend and twist to fit a few molecules, but some of the enzymes released by fungi can do yoga. These enzymes are much more flexible and can bind to and digest a range of big, cumbersome molecules. It just so happens that some of our notorious environmental pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which come from burning fossil fuels and some industrial processes, can be attacked by fungal enzymes. Great news for us, just another tasty meal for the fungi.

It Takes a Village

Everyone knows there is no I in team. Fungi take that to heart and work together to accomplish mycoremediation. Fungi can grow as single cells, but more frequently they take on a branching, multicellular structure called hyphae. The hyphae can form huge networks of interconnecting branches called a mycelium (plural, mycelia). If you have ever walked through a forest, you were almost certainly walking on a carpet of fungi, albeit hidden under the soil surface, but nevertheless there under your feet. The largest known continuous mycelium in Eastern Oregon covered about 2,400 acres, or about 1,665 football fields!

Fungal hyphae
branching fungal hyphae

And, you know what they say about a big mycelium, right? Big digestion. In a contaminated environment, fungal mycelia can branch out, providing a huge surface area for release of enzymes and digestion of contaminants. The hyphae that make up the mycelium are also interconnected and can exchange and share nutrients, so even if a part of the mycelium network doesn't have direct access to the contaminant, some of it can be transported via the network. Together, these features of fungal growth can accelerate mycoremediation.

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