Solving the Real Oil Crisis: Could Fungi be the Answer?

Janine A. Cunningham

You might have heard about big oil spills like Deep Water Horizon, but did you know that oil pollution is more common than you think? Methods of clean up can cause more harm than good to the environment. However, research suggests marine fungi could provide an ingenious solution…

Some of my fondest memories growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, were the days spent at Hout Bay harbour with my parents, eating fresh fish and chips before walking along the docks to see what the fishermen were bringing in. I would often peer over to see the calm, glistening waters reflecting a magnitude of colours back at me. Almost like a rainbow floating on the surface of the ocean. The sad truth is that this beautiful, multi-coloured reflection was caused by toxic oil sitting on the water’s surface.

An oil slick on the ocean’s surface. Photo: Pixabay

An oil slick on the ocean’s surface. Photo: Pixabay

Oil pollution is a lot more common than one may think. Aside from the large spills that we see on the news, a significant proportion of oil pollution originates from regular boating operations in harbours and runoff from oil-drenched roads and parking lots. 

What you may not know about oil spill clean-ups

When we see news about large oil spills, there are three common methods that are used to clean them up. These methods include:

  • Direct burning of surface oil

  • Mechanical devices such as booms (which trap oil) and skimmers (which skim and collect oil)

  • Chemical dispersants

The burning of surface oil produces large quantities of toxic smoke that contains harmful compounds such as carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, that further pollute the atmosphere, while mechanical clean-ups are extremely expensive, and can allow the oil to escape. This leaves the more widely used method of chemical dispersants.

Thick black smoke is released upon burning of oil. Photo: Pixabay

Thick black smoke is released upon burning of oil. Photo: Pixabay

Chemical dispersants do exactly what the name implies; they simply disperse oil into smaller portions in an attempt to allow natural bacteria to degrade it more easily. However, there are two problems with this method: 

  1. Firstly, collaborative research conducted by Dr. Sara Kleindienst and her colleagues in 2015 has indicated that chemical dispersants can actually suppress the ability of natural bacteria to degrade oil, potentially leading to a more widespread and persistent presence of oil in the marine environment.

  2. Secondly, the dispersants themselves can potentially do more harm than good. According to a review of sustainable methods for oil spill management these dispersants contain toxic compounds that can be extremely harmful to marine animals, specifically impairing development in fish.

Instead of these chemicals, an ideal solution would be to utilize a naturally occurring animal that can decay the oil. But what animal can live off of highly toxic oil? Well, not animals, but recent research has discovered marine fungal species able to effectively break-down oil products present in the environment.

The real magic mushroom

Fungi are neither plant nor animal, but rather a completely independent group of organisms. When we think of fungi, we tend to think of mushrooms, and our minds usually envisage something straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Marine fungi are a bit different. These yeast-like organisms can rarely be seen by the naked eye, and when they can be, they tend to resemble the gross fluffy stuff you might find growing on that old casserole at the back of your fridge (ew). 

Many marine fungi species are natural decomposers, meaning they are able to chemically deteriorate organic materials, like wood or dead organisms, into their basic chemical components, from which they absorb energy, carbon and nutrients. Researchers in the Department of Chemistry at Haverford College, led by Dr. Rachel Simister, have discovered three coastal species of marine fungi from the Gulf of Mexico that are able to effectively degrade one of the main toxic ingredients of oil – Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAH’s for short. 

These fungi use specific enzymes that can break down the oil, and absorb and utilize the carbon from it, ultimately allowing them to ‘feed’ off this toxic substance. This process of hydrocarbon removal can significantly reduce the toxicity of oil, and offers a natural solution that could potentially restore oil contaminated environments to their former glory.

After every rainbow, there’s a fungus?

Oil is still considered as one of the most highly valued resources in the world, it’s unlikely that we will be rid of it anytime soon. This means that the threat of spills will always be looming. But hopefully, with advances in research, the future will involve more natural methods of clean-up, and after every rainbow-coloured oily sheen found on the ocean’s surface; there could be a fungus ready to remove it.

Rising Tides is a series focussing on the current threats facing our ocean, how these are being tackled and what you can do to help