Tradd Cotter wants to unleash an army of fungus to eat the pollutants contaminating the famously murky waterway dividing Brooklyn from Queens known as Newtown Creek. According to Cotter, a microbiologist based in South Carolina, fungus can be trained to digest almost anything: pesticides, heavy metals, e. Coli, polyurethane, treated lumber. “It’s landed on a bowling ball and figured out how to eat it,” Cotter said. “I mean, can you eat that?”
“We should be worshiping fungi,” he said during a recent presentation about mushrooms at North Brooklyn Boat Club in Greenpoint.
A best-selling author, onetime EPA fellowship holder, and co-proprietor of the Mushroom Mountain fungus farm and laboratory with his colleague (and wife) Olga Katic, Cotter is a proponent of an environmental improvement technique known as mycoremediation—training strains of fungus to consume specific hazardous materials in a given environment. During his recent visit to Newtown Creek to lead members of the Newtown Creek Alliance in a mycoremediation workshop, Cotter and hydrogeologist Daniel Reyes spent an afternoon examining the creek and its environs in order to make recommendations about which remediation techniques would be best suited to the area.
“We’re going to assess the history of the site, and we’re going to, to role play some scenarios that might be able to be used in the community,” Cotter told The Brooklyn Ink, adding that the EPA hasn’t yet sanctioned him to collect samples or introduce anything new into the Newtown Creek ecosystem. “It’s not a formal report, but it’s a beginning, and that’s what has to be done first—we have to look and see what is there and tour the area.”
The Environmental Protection Agency named Newtown Creek a Superfund cleanup site in 2010. Since then, the agency has been studying the creek hopes to complete a survey of feasible cleanup techniques by 2019, according to Caroline Kwan, the EPA’s site manager for Newtown Creek.
When complete, the feasibility study will be opened to the public for comment. This is when Newtown Creek Alliance could proffer Cotter’s findings, Kwan told The Brooklyn Ink. In the end, cleanup options will be selected based on a set standards made by Congress: long-term effectiveness, implementability, and cost are among the criteria, which Kwan said are “very strict.”
“It’s a very complicated process,” Kwan told the Brooklyn Ink. “It’s the government. You know how it is.”
According to the EPA, Newtown Creek is one of the nation’s most polluted waterways. During its nineteenth-century heyday as a manufacturing port, Newtown Creek was lined with factories that spewed forth a noxious brew of industrial chemicals: fertilizer, glue, coal, petrochemicals.
Naturally, many of these chemicals found their way into the water—including, courtesy of ExxonMobil, a glut of refined oil to the tune of 17 million gallons. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called the spill “one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history.”)
In addition to industrial toxins, Cotter said the water of Newtown Creek teems with harmful coliform bacteria—anaerobic bacteria from animals, like those found in the human digestive tract. “One of the biggest sources [for coliforms] would be breaks like sewer lines, septic lines,” said Cotter. Pet waste, he added, is another common source for coliform contamination; a segment of this weekend’s workshop will teach attendees how to properly compost pet waste.
“Dog waste, gram for gram, has ten times more bacteria than chicken litter,” Cotter said.
Because of its adaptability, Cotter said, fungus is uniquely suited to combat an assortment of toxic materials like the one found in Newtown Creek.
“Mushrooms sweat just like you or I do when they’re under pressure,” Cotter explained. “They eat organic matter, and when they run out of food they start to sweat chemical keys called enzymes, and those enzymes are what combust or break up what would be in the oil.”
“If you place mushroom mycelium on a place that is contaminated, it tunnels around like a mole and explores,” creating a cocktail of enzymes that is tailor-made to break down almost any substance it might encounter, Cotter told the Brooklyn Ink.
An important part of Cotter’s work in mycoremediation is gathering fungus samples from contaminated sites, then testing those samples against various toxins on petri dishes in his Mushroom Mountain lab.
“What I do on Friday nights is set up these little gladiator matches,” Cotter said. “I’ll put bacteria on one side and E. coli on one side, and maybe an oyster mushroom on the other, and I just watch ‘em battle it out and see what they’re good at.”
Once he has identified that a certain fungus is adept at breaking down a specific toxin, Cotter will put the fungus on a sort of training regimen, force-feeding it the contaminant until the fungus develops a taste for it. “It would be like if I put a pizza in your house, and I lock you up for a week and you eat the pizza. Then, after day three or four, I bring in some rotten duck eggs, and I lock you in there,” Cotter explained. “By day seven, you’ve wolfed down the plate. I could keep bringing you those duck eggs, and … a year later, you won’t even know the difference.”
The idea is to keep the fungus focused on the contaminant of interest, Cotter added, “whether it’s an oil molecule, hydrocarbons, pH dioxanes—you know, there’s a lot of stuff in Newtown.”
When dealing with contaminated soil, the trained mycelium can then be introduced into a biomass, such as wood chips, and mixed into the ground. When dealing with contaminated water, however, the situation can be convoluted by the fact that most strains of fungus need a relatively constant oxygen supply.
“They can hold their breath for 24 hours, but they need to come up for air, so in aquatic environments that can be difficult,” Cotter said.
One potential workaround could be to collect oil from the water using bioabsorbent booms, then put the collected material in a special EPA-approved open-top dumpster, Cotter said. “Then you can just layer your fungus and your absorbents that have soaked up the oil, like you’re making lasagna,” Cotter explained.
Although Cotter and Reyes will evaluate Newtown Creek with a view to abating chemical contamination, mycoremediation can have applications far beyond chemical cleanup, Cotter said. For instance, he has recently been working with arborists in Kentucky to see if fungus can be used to combat the invasive emerald ash borer beetle, which is destructive to ash trees.
Since some types of fungus prey on insects or larvae, Cotter has asked the arborists to look for emerald ash borer specimens that look like they have been attacked by fungus.
Cotter said one arborist recently sent him a specimen of an emerald ash borer larva that appears to have been “mummified” by fungus; he is currently awaiting laboratory confirmation.
“It’s not post mortem, but it’s either this one or the next one,” Cotter said of the specimen. “That’s what’s exciting: I go out and show them what these bugs could look like mummified, and then it only took two years for an arborist to say, ‘I think I have one.’”
The solicitation of fungus samples from citizen scientists around the country is crucial to his work, Cotter said, and will be important for Newtown as well.
“We already have some strains that eat oil, but what I’d like to do is go up [to Newtown Creek] and collect some native fungi and have the public turn some in,” Cotter told the Brooklyn Ink, adding that he likes the “community platform” created by this type of citizen science project. “You know, Bill and Bob are walking along the beach and they find a mushroom growing out of the dunes and it’s salt tolerant, or somebody finds one growing out of a pile of creosote-soaked railroad ties.”
“I mean, we’ve had mushrooms turned in that people are finding growing out of bowling balls, we have fungi that eat the brains of fire ants down here,” Cotter said. “If you look up the history of penicillin and development, the government put out a public call: ‘Hey, if we’re gonna win this world war, we better be turning in moldy cantaloupes.’”
“That’s what I’m calling for,” he added with a laugh. “I’m calling for an immediate turning in of fungi that are doing peculiar things.”