Monday, November 17, 2008

AMP Turns 1!

We made it back to Ecuador after an enjoyable, if busy, time running up and down the West Coast of the United States. The Amazon Mycorenewal Project has reached its first birthday and what a year it has been! To commemorate, we had ourselves an AMP board meeting in Northern California with lots of tasty food and lively conversation. I wanted to thank all of our team members, both here in Ecuador and back in the States for all of their fantastic support in helping us get to and participating at speaking events, feeding us occasionally and focusing their considerable collective brain-power to steer our endeavor in the proper direction.

So far, the data that we have gathered has been qualitatively focused. We are now in the midst of designing our third experiment, which will apply what we have learned from obsevering our previous work and with an intent to do intensive chemical analysis and get a quantitative picture of our mycoremediation process. For the past year, our efforts are best described as a feasability study, examining the potential pitfalls and regionally-specific parameters that anyone applying this technique on a grand scale would be wise to account for.

Our qualitative picture of our system is encouraging. We have successfully grown heathy mycelium and mushrooms on concentrations of up to 40% aged petroleum. The application of oyster mushroom spawn to contaminated soil has drastically reduced the odor of petroleum as compared to sites where spawn was not added for control. This observation is important, because the toxic fraction of crude oil are the Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and they are the same compounds you encounter when your city is repaving roads on a hot day. These stinky vapors eventually off-gas and leave behind a largely inert substance we call asphalt, or more specifically asphaltenes. When I say inert, I mean they are not as bioavailable to the living systems they share proximity with and thus, the reduction of oily smell is an indication of a reduction in these same PAHs. Supporting this hypothesis is the difference between fungal-treated contamination layers and controls to the touch. Controls (without mycelium) were still sticky to the touch and smearing our latex gloves months after the experiment began, while those that had spawn added were dry to the touch. This further bolsters the our supposition that the PAHs have been significantly reduced, since the presence of PAHs in a sample of petroleum results in a liquid state at normal temperatures.

None of this is the final word on our work, since we still need extensive chemical analysis to support our hypothesis. Luckily, we feel confident that we are ready for this important phase and we have worked out some of the "bugs" in previous experiments. These include providing adequate shelter and security for that shelter and site, refining our technique of acclimating spawn to oil-metabolizing, remediation site design, questions about reinoculation and avoiding biological contamination in a diverse, tropical environment.

As the Amazon Mycorenewal Project enters into another year of work, we hope to focus on skill-transfer with our partners in Lago Agrio and the codifying of all we have done so that research can continue in affected areas with a reference onhand. Since there are many types of contamination throughout the Sucumbios Province, we presently feel that the potential for success with mycoremediation in the Amazon focuses on oil-saturated sediments, of which unfortunately there is no shortage.

Like all nonprofit endeavors, we are working within a limited budget and will ultimately need additional funding to continue fleshing out the most efficient and appropriate applications of mycoremediation in the Amazon, not to mention continuing the education of community leaders on its use. Our sponsoring organization, Cloud Forest Institute, is a registered 501c3 nonprofit that will gladly accept donations of any amount to support our work here. Additionally, grant recomendations can be sent to me directly at the email located on this blog.

Finally, I want to thank all of my readers for following our work where ever you are and for your words of support. Thanks!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

More Speaking Dates in California

Headed back down from the Pacific Northwest, Jess and I will be speaking in the Bay Area on two occasions:

Thursday, November 6th, 7-9 pm,
Green Fusion Design Center, 14 Greenfield Avenue, San Anselmo, CA. Graciously hosted by Permaculture Marin

Saturday, November 8th, 6 pm Thanksgiving Pot Luck,
729 Apgar St, Oakland, CA. Graciously hosted by Powershroom

Monday, October 20, 2008

ChevronTexaco Loses US Appeal

ChevronTexaco lost its bid for arbitration in New York and it's case that the Republic of Ecuador is solely responsible for the ecological damage created by oil exploration in the Amazon. This is good news for the continuing case in Lago Agrio, which now cannot be derailed by a contradicting US verdict.

Friday, October 3, 2008

AMP US Speaking Tour!

Hello Fellow Fungophiles,

I am presently back in the United States of America for a visit and speaking tour. We will be speaking at several locations until mid-November, when we return to Ecuador.

We will be holding an event tomorrow, October 4th from 3-6PM in Arcata, California at Let it Grow store, 889 9th St. Wounded Planet Foundation will be hosting the event.

On October 11th-12th I will be speaking at the Puget Sound Mycological Society's 45th Annual Wild Mushroom Show at Center for Urban Horticulture of University of Washington in Seattle, Washington.

I will also be speaking at the Bioneers Satellite Conference in Seattle on October 17th at 4:15PM.

Other events in Grass Valley and Marin County, CA are in the works for November. Watch this space for details.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Lovable Lago

One of the aims of this blog has been to gather together diverse links and articles concerning the both mycoremediation and the continuing oil contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon. These subjects have ranged from updates on related political developments both here in Ecuador and in the United States, as well as background information on the science of remediation. My goal has also been to make this blog interesting for both those without a background in biology and for those with a keen interest in mycoremediation. For the latter group, here is a link to the report prepared for the Washington State Department of Transportation entitled "Mycoremediation of Aged Petroleum Hydrocarbon Contaminants in Soil." This report, prepared by Dr. Susan A. Thomas (et al.) is now 10 years old and for that reason, I can only assume, it has now been released on the web. The WSDOT report details the experimental process that Paul Stamets popularized in his book Mycelium Running.

Dr. Thomas works at Battelle Laboratories directing the research of many mycoremediaiton applications and has projects running that include fungal remediation of sediments contaminated with both petroleum hydrocarbons and benzene. Thomas holds a joint mycoremediation patent with Paul Stamets and scientists Jack Word and Meg Pinza.

We just returned from our recent trip to Lago Agrio and I seem to have cultivated an affection for that gritty, complicated, border boomtown. Most gringos like myself use Lago as an outpost to launch themselves into the nearby jungle reserve, Cuyabeno. I believe this is so because the guidebooks do Lago and injustice, describing the place as rife with dangers and empty of charm. Lago is in a soupy-hot tropical region prone to sudden downpours that I have found myself sometimes praying for. There is a significant Colombian population, due to its proximity to Ecuador’s northern neighbor and in my opinion, this contingent has had a positive impact on the cuisine, with sweet, buttery rolls called pan de bono.

I’ve spent enough time in Lago to know that if I need to make fast friends with a reserved petrolero while poking around a contaminated site, mentioning my penchant for the local gut-rot chichicara is a sure-fire strategy. Women in Lago Agrio have abandoned the traditional conservative dress of most of Ecuador for something more akin to the fashion of Spring Break—perhaps due to the concentration of “Night Clubs”, or perhaps just because it is so persistently, impossibly, sweltering. After a predictably long day working out a our field site, invariably consisting of some form of manual labor, we can look forward to cold Pilsner, unidentified jungle meat, and perhaps some salsa dancing if we are up to it.

The latest news in this region is the recent spillage of 10,000 gallons of crude oil and waste water into the the Agua Rico River in the Shushifindi region of Sucumbios Province (the same province as Lago). In and around Lago Agrio, spills are so commonplace that they only make the international press when they reach ridiculous proportions. For an example, just down the road from our field site in Lago Agrio, we encountered a ruptured oil pipeline that had been crudely and haphazardly repaired with the trunk of a small tree hammered into the pipe. The pipeline was actively leaking what we calculated as roughly 155 gallons of crude per day, directly into the stream underneath. Donald called it in and we went on with our day.

Friday, August 22, 2008

MycoTour and Reinoculation

Striking the correct balance between keeping this blog up-to-date and posting information that is interesting to even the most avid mycoremediation devotee has been challenging. Although a lot of my time was recently spent preparing for and recovering from our 11-day MycoTour of Ecuador. From the previous entry one might infer that it was a complete disaster. However, I want to say that while Bill’s death was hard on everyone, we had an unforgettable time together and learned a lot. The MycoTour brought together mushroom aficionados from mycological societies from as far south as San Diego to as far North as Vancouver BC. The West Coast fungivore community was well represented.

With our fantastic group we visited our field sites and heard about the current developments in the Texaco-Chevron litigation from Frente de Denfesa de la Amazonas lawyer Pablo Fajardo. While at the Frente offices, we had the opportunity to view the short documentary entitled Contamination and Testimonies of the Affected which you can view on Frente’s website. Later in the tour we had the opportunity to apply the collective knowledge of the assembled mycophiles to aid an ongoing biological inventory at the research refuge BioMindo in Mindo, Ecuador. AMP volunteer Danny Newman has posted a collection of the his excellent photos of the scores of mushrooms we encountered on our forays and at our field sites here.

All this activity might cause one to wonder what has been happening with the research. Backing up a bit, just before the MycoTour Ricardo and I went out to Lago Agrio to add mycelium to our boxes and pits. Some of our treatments had fresh mycelium replacing old, dying mycelium and some of our treatments had the old mixed with the new. As it turns out, we got overconfident with our excellent growth and did not anticipate that the turning would risk contamination. So our pits have been infested with an opportunistic black mold. This isn’t disasterous, but it is an opportunity to learn about the best way to maintain the strongest mycelium possible.

We decided to reinoculate with fresh mycelium to continue our culture, since all fungi lives only so long on a given substrate. If reinoculation is not a smart option, then playing with our initial inoculation and it's proportion to the contaminated soil is a good option. Our use of sawdust means that our mycelium has a shorter, but more vigorous life than if it were growing on say, cut logs and branches. The reason for the shorter life-cycle on sawdust has to do with the greater surface area offered by sawdust. The more surface area, the greater the biological availability of nutrients and, in our case, the quicker the remediation.

The current set of experiments has had a greater focus on qualitative assessment, punctuated by modest chemical analysis to compare with our observations. Our reasoning for this had a lot to do with budgetary concerns, since chemical analysis is an expensive process and often not necessary to establish that a fungal culture is healthy. Basically, with the information we have gleaned in the last six months of experimentation, I feel confident that we can design other, smaller and shorter experiments that will help us fine tune our method.

In other news, in less than a month Jess and I will be visiting the United States along the West Coast and the Chicago area. Watch this space for speaking dates and feel free to email me if you would like to host us at your local mycological society, classroom or community center.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Farewell to Bill

Bill and Joan joined us for our very first MycoTour of Ecuador as part of a fundraiser for our work here. The MycoTour included visits to our field sites in Lago Agrio, mushroom forays in Ecuador's jungle and, among many other activities, a reality ''Toxic Tour'' of oil contamination in the Sucumbios province. Both mushroom enthusiasts living in Vancouver, B.C., Bill and Joan were a delight to travel with. We were all shocked by Bill's sudden passing, as we were all impressed by the easy pull-ups that this tough, friendly man was doing in the jungle lodge we visited. I feel lucky to have shared Bill's 83rd birthday in the Amazon with him and honored to have known such a vigorous spirit as Bill. Both Jess and I count Joan as one of our good friends and our heart goes out to her in this difficult time. Below I have reposted Bill's obituary, may he rest in peace.

William Campbell

It is with great sadness that we announce the sudden and unexpected death
of William “Bill” Campbell, in Papallacta, Ecuador on July 18th, 2008, two
days after his 83rd birthday. Bill was born in Derry, North Ireland and raised
in Glasgow, Scotland, served two years in the British Army and married
Margaret McGoldrick Doyle in 1952. They lived in Paisley, Scotland where he
still has many friends and relatives today. Bill and Margaret came to live in
Canada in 1966 and chose White Rock, BC to be their home since 1969.
Bill was pre-deceased by his wife of 47 years in 1999 and a son, John, in
1975. He is survived by his son William “Liam” Campbell of White Rock,
BC, step-sons Joe Doyle of Richmond B.C. and Jim (Kath) Doyle of Oldham
England and their family. As well, a sister, Lilly Conway and family and
brother, John (Isabelle) and family in Scotland. Bill will be deeply missed by
his close friend and companion of 8 years, Joan O’Reilly and her children
and grand children. At the time of his untimely death, Bill and Joan were
travelling with the Amazon Mycorenewal Project in Ecuador. Special thank
you to the coodinators of the project, especially Jess Work and Brian Pace
who provided an incredible amount of assistance, support and translation
when dealing with the authorties to arrange creamation to bring Bill home.
Prior to leaving Ecuador, some of Bill’s ashes were spread on the Island of
Isabela in the Galapagos, a place Bill always wanted to go.

A funeral service will be held at the Star of the Sea Parish, Good Shepherd
Church, 1:00 p.m. Wednesday, August 6th, 2008 located at 2250 150
Street, Surrey. A celebration of Bill’s life will follow at the Elks Lodge #431,
1469 George Street, White Rock. Internment will take place at Gardens of

If people wish, in lieu of flowers they
may send donations in Bill’s name to
the Amazon Mycorenewal Project, a
volunteer based organization aimed at
cleaning up oil polluted areas in Lago
Agrio, Ecuador. Please contact Jess
Work via email
for further information and to donate to
this project.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Caterwaul Quarterly AMP Article

There is plenty going on down here in Ecuador, but I have been taking a much needed short vacation. I will be writing a more full account of our reinoculation and latest field observations in the next few days, but for now here is a link to an article I wrote about our project in a new online periodical called Caterwaul Quarterly.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Vivan los Hongos!

On May 28th, community representatives from Ecuador and Nigeria are traveling to San Ramon, California along with Bay Area activists to demonstrate at the gates of Chevron corporate headquarters during their annual shareholder meeting. Supportive shareholders inside will confront Chevron executives about the toxic legacy of oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Nigerian delta has also faced similarly serious health and ecological consequences as a result of oil development.

As for news on the fungal front, I am quite happy to write that our second attempt at mycoremediation in the Amazon has quite literally born fruit. Three weeks after we set up our experiment, a number of the boxes have begun to fruit mushrooms—directly out of the petroleum-saturated layer. We put yellow plastic screens directly on top of the contamination layer for easy monitoring. When we need to take a sample, we can simply lift the screen and get down to the area of interest. The screens also have the benefit of providing a clear visual marker for locating the oil layer.

Multiple clusters of little mushroom primordia (baby mushrooms!) were poking out everywhere from fuzzy-white mycelium. In many boxes, the overall effect was a graying of the black, oil-soaked sections as a result of dense mycelial growth. Every single box currently has healthy mycelium growing inside the contaminated layers, even in our most concentrated treatments, such as the one pictured.

There are no mushrooms fruiting in the large pits we dug and filled with spawn, sawdust and other mushroom substrates. However, the lack of fruit bodies is really not important, since the vegetative state of the mushrooms, the mycelium, is what does the majority of the heavy-lifting in remediation. By use of the yellow screens we were able to peer under several feet of piled spawn and substrate and confirm the presence of mycelium in our pits as well. These fine threads of fungi branch and grow densely through soil and substrate, excreting oil-digesting enzymes along the way.

Visualizing the growth processes in action here is an exercise in pretending to be very small. If I was roughly the size of a cell, the span of a centimeter or two is quite daunting. This is the scale that mycelium operates on. Our mycelium responded to a similar distance created by the plastic screens by sending down ropey rhizoids, root-like fungal structures used for entering a substrate. We can assume that the fungus produced rhizoids because it recognizes petroleum as a tasty meal and is willing to expend metabolic energy to reach (pictured).

In some of our pits, we encountered some weedy fungi that rapidly fruited and died. Despite this, directly under these mushrooms was healthy, almond-scented oyster mushroom mycelium. As such, it seems that our oyster mushrooms are able to hold their own against the first round of competition.

In the following weeks we will be taking samples for laboratory analysis to get a quantitative picture of exactly how much hydrocarbon pollution has actually been digested. Qualitatively speaking, our progress thus far has met and exceeded all of our highest expectations.

Monday, May 12, 2008

photo dump

Oil-acclimated sawdust spawn

Redefining volunteerism in the Amazon

Three different contamination concentrations

Here we have some low-tech pastuerization of mushroom substrate

The hair mats, in all their glory

Four deep, plastic-lined pits, ready for action

In situ remediation site

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Cooking with Crude

The big news around Lago Agrio is that Ecuadorian lawyers Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luis Yanza each won the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize for their work building a class-action environmental lawsuit against Texaco/Chevron for what is now an estimated $16 billion in damages. It was an important time for us as well, since we were busy setting up our second mycoremediation experiment on Donald's land. Drawn by the news of the Goldman Award, two journalists dropped by to snap photos of our work throughout our stay. It also seems that folks in Fort Bragg, CA are also looking to take the mycoremediation out of the lab and into the field to work on dioxin pollution.

I have to take this opportunity to say that if it were not for the outstanding effort of our six volunteers, two competent hired hands, Donald, Jess and Ricardo, I'd still be in Lago. Thanks, guys. Working with crude oil is just about the messiest job I can think of, and we all spent 7 long, hard days getting to know a barrel of the stuff.

We collected the crude from a 30 year-old waste pit because we wanted to test our method with the nastiest petroleum contamination we could find. The waste pit we collected from was smack in the middle of jungle land. Despite the dense thicket of Ecuadorian Amazon that closed around all sides, the contamination had effectively created a clearing in the canopy where trees and underbrush were unable to grow. Only a few sickly, scrubby plants clung to life on top of the litter that had built up over the decades on top of the aging crude. We built a bamboo bridge of sorts to stand above the pool and formed a chain of goop-filled buckets back to the truck that held an empty 55 gallon barrel.

On the way back to our site, we stopped at a sugarcane farm and drank some of the sweet, green juice being produced for raw sugar. Below the horse-powered sugarcane mill was a large field of sugarcane husk. We collected a small load of the sugarcane husk, thanked our hosts and moved on. The husks represented an abundant potential mushroom substrate and we intended to include it in this round of investigations. During this trip, we also collected coconut shells to use the discarded fiber and local grass-straw for more substrate trials. And of course, who could forget the human hair. As it turns out, some of our friends thought our cause was worthy enough to donate their dreadlocks and one of our volunteers, Eric, was even inspired to lend his beard to the project.

The barrel of crude had to be processed a bit before we could begin our experiment. Old oil off-gases toxic volatile compounds for years and some of it eventually hardens into an asphalt-like substance. Those asphalt stones represent a problem for our analytical purposes because they are 100% petroleum and cause the lab to report much higher levels of petroleum than are biologically significant. In a real-world remediation project, we would not have to worry about them since they have essentially become part of the local geology at that point and are biological-nonparticipants, inaccessible by hyphae and otherwise not really going anywhere. This is a long way of saying we had to push a barrel of gloppy oil through a metal sieve by hand. It only took a day and a half of three people in safety gear working nonstop.

Next came the preparation of our contamination mixture. By carefully measuring how much petroleum we had at the beginning of our test, we are able to determine the total amount and rate of hydrocarbons being metabolized by our mycelium throughout our experiment. While also mostly unnecessary in an applied mycoremediation scenario, this meant mushing buckets of earth with oil and sawdust in various proportions by hand. It was kind of like making really disgusting bread. Knowing these ratios also provides us with information important for assessing how much earth and/or organic material must be added to a given site to create a comfy environment for our mushrooms to do their work. Always thinking low-tech, we heat-pasteurized our substrate in 55 gallon drums over both gas-fueled and wood burning fires. The acclimated mycelium had already colonized bags full of sawdust and by adding them to pasteurized bulk substrate, we allowed them to expand their mycelial mass quickly in a new environment rife with potential competitors.

Since the last thing any of us wanted to do was create more pollution by spreading the existing stuff around, we took every precaution in the protection of Donald's land. While a large number of our experimental treatments are being conducted in small microcosm boxes, we tested larger areas more similar to actual waste sites in very large, deep pits. Somehow, the exciting world of mycoremediation required me to dig holes in the dead Amazonian heat for three days. The pits were lined with two layers of the thickest plastic available and staked into place. Inside, we heaped contaminated soil, substrate and acclimated mycelium for remediation. In two weeks we will be checking our progress, but Donald is there monitoring the site daily.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mycorenewal and Ecology

Our mycelium is growing vigorously in the lab. It has been acclimated to metabolizing oil and seems healthy and strong. This is good news of course, but ours is a question of ecological engineering as well as laboratory wizardry. Even though our pet organism is doing well in the Petri dish, this has no bearing whatsoever on how well it does in the field. There is a big difference between life in the Petri dish and the Amazon. So will our oysters become food for insects or out competed by other weedy fungi? We don’t know. However, Pleurotus (oyster) mushrooms happen to be among nature’s most aggressive fungal species, metabolizing everything from wood to coffee grounds to, well, oil. Their enzymes have shown to experimentally breakdown Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and somehow all fungi have to find a way to compete in a hazardous environment when the vast majority of their biomass consists of threadlike appendages only one-cell thick. So how do they do it?

The long answer is an adventure into complexity or in other words, ecology. The short answer is we don’t know. Well, not exactly. Soil is alive. It is chalk full of critters large and to be sure, small. Really small. Bacteria, lots of bacteria, fungi, spiders, mites, beetles, nematodes, plants small mammals and reptiles all vie for carbon and nutrients in every cubic meter of soil. So why would fungi ever be able to build their vast networks under our feet if they are constantly hectored by hungry, exponentially growing bacteria along every centimeter of their hyphae? The answer of course is, we don’t know, not really.

However, we do have some ideas. Symbiosis is quite frequent throughout nature. In fact, it is happening in every cell of every creature on the face of the planet that has a nucleus. It happens to be most common across Kingdoms, that is organisms that are vastly different from one and other in form and, importantly, metabolism. So some scientists theorize the that fungi form symbiotic relationships with specific, friendly bacteria that keep other, unfriendly bacteria at bay. Unfortunately, the Law of the Jungle in the jungle is somewhat erroneous. Tooth and claw have their role to play in every ecosystem, but cooperation and mutualisms are far to common to ignore.

Plant-fungal symbiosis is as ubiquitous as it is ancient. For over 400 million years—since plants first colonized land—some 90% of all plants have formed fungal partnerships inside or around their roots. Plants gain access to difficult to reach water and nutrients sources and protection from disease while the fungi, called mycorrhizae (“root-fungus”) receives sugar manufactured by the plant. It is possible that different species of fungi form mutualistic relationships with bacteria where select species of beneficial bacteria are encouraged to grow in the area surrounding the mycelium, providing protection in exchange for some nutrient currency. An arrangement such as this is not hard to imagine, in fact, it seems we humans have a similar arrangement in via our appendix: recent findings have identified the appendix as a bacterial safe-haven for beneficial bacteria that help keep pathogenic bugs at bay.

While the ecology of symbiosis can help clarify the niche of fungi in the environment, we need a different take on ecology to see why we are confident that our oysters will have a decent chance of thriving in their new home. All living things are capable of bearing offspring at a rate that far outpaces mere replacement. Usually what keeps any one organism from taking over the world with offspring in a few generations are predators, diseases, famine, suitable habitat and natural catastrophe of all scale. We are designing our project to give our acclimated oyster mushrooms a leg up by taking advantage of what is known as an ecological desert created by the petroleum contamination. The areas are toxic by definition because no other organism in any significant numbers likes to munch on oil. Therefore, we would expect a life form specifically trained (not, to be clear, genetically engineered) to enjoy such a meal would have a distinct advantage in such an environment and reproduce prolifically.

Creating an ecological advantage for our mushrooms will require more than just sowing it over a lagoon of oil. While the oil-digesting capabilities of oyster mushrooms may be a part of the new technology of mycoremediation, the specific process of its application to an affected area is what will ultimately allow it to succeed with as little input and maintenance as possible. This is important because the area contaminated in the Ecuadorian Amazon is so vast and heterogeneous that our techniques will likely have to be site-specific. We will be back in Lago Agrio by mid-April to begin our new round of trials. It is our hope that our latest experiment should provide a baseline methodology that will serve as a template for other Amazonian sites blighted by ill-disposed petroleum waste.

The Amazon Mycorenewal Project is currently looking for additional NGO partners with complementary missions to help support our work here in Ecuador. Interested organizational representatives should contact me at for more information about our mission and work. Also, Amazon Mycorenewal Project has a new website:


mycorrhizae photo from:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Building on the Banks of Sour Lake

Our last visit to Lago was colored with the knowledge that Ecuador had just been invaded by Colombia. The Colombian military was pursuing FARC guerillas and decided that they would follow them across the border and bomb them on Ecuadorian soil. Naturally, the Ecuadorian government viewed this incursion as a violation of their national sovereignty and sent troops to the border. The Colombian government claims it is absolved of wrongdoing because it considers the FARC to be a drug-dealing terrorist organization. The Ecuadorian-Colombian border is only about an hours drive from Lago Agrio, so the situation was on everyone’s mind as we set about gathering materials for our new structures and next round of mushroom trials. Interestingly, no one we spoke with considered the FARC to be a terrorist organization at all and repeatedly insisted that it was the Colombian paramilitary organizations that were terrorizing people.

We expected to spend about five days in Lago putting everything together, but in both construction and travel, everything takes longer than you expect. The structures we came to build were to be located on Donald’s land, so we needed to rendezvous with him before we did anything. A taxi brought us out to Donald’s little house out in the jungle and met Lorena, Donald’s wife. Lorena showed us around the land as we surveyed the area for an adequate place to build. They have several hectares of land for growing cacao, with a small mountain they have left intentionally uncultivated as a jungle reserve. The electric company had already cut down all the trees on a swath of land below their wires and so we selected that area to avoid clearing more land. To the left is a photo of the area we chose before we began work.

Donald and Lorena have 1,800 cacao trees on their land. At only three and a half years old, they already produce several hundred pounds of raw cacao annually. The catch is that raw cacao goes for about 70 cents a pound. Back in Portland, I remember quite clearly that bulk raw cacao at natural food stores goes for $15 a pound. Jess and I wanted to help do the harvest because we wanted to learn about the process required to produce chocolate and, being stuck in Lago on a Sunday, we didn’t have anything better to do. We began early that morning, machetes in hand. We set out with Donald, Lorena and their son Jesus to cull the ripe cacao pods from trees overgrown with nettles. It was an all day affair. The Amazonian countryside seems to have two kinds of weather: hot as hell, more humid than the inside of your mouth or raining buckets. Our day in the cacao fields was the first of the two options.

The cacao fruit is mucilaginous, sour-sweet and tangy. The fruit surrounds the cacao bean. We ate the juicy fruit with relish in the heat and spit the seeds into a bucket, happy with the knowledge that one day, the contents of our spittoon would somewhere become fine dessert.

Aside from the ubiquitous stinging nettles, there were also some of our fungal friends out in the fields, proving that chocolate is truly loved by all...

Control is an essential component of any scientific enterprise. The upside of using controls is that you can take them for granted as known quantities and thus focus on other unknown aspects of your system. The downside to increasing control is often reflected in decreasing realism. As we were finishing up our site walk, dark clouds rolled in and the afternoon rapidly morphed into a stormy-twilight. The sheets of rains that flowed helped explain what happened to the mushrooms at our original site. The heavy rains are a given in our location and constructing a roof certainly creates a somewhat unnatural situation. However, our main goal is to get our system humming along as it is supposed to, with healthy oil-digesting fungi. Next we figure out how best to expand our procedure to apply it to broader contamination sites.

A main goal of this round of trials is to match the ideal substrate to the growing conditions in the jungle. We will be using sawdust salvaged from the waste stream of the nearby broomstick factory, inoculated wooden dowels from the same source, locally collected elephant grass and human hair. On our journey to Ecuador, we brought along 40 lbs of human hair left over from the oil spill mycoremediation effort in the San Francisco Bay. TSA loved that. Presently, all that hair has been woven into mats and rolled up into two gigantic dreadlocks in our living room. In a week or so, they will become science. Throughout our design process, we have carefully weighed our substrates in terms of availability, sustainability and, of course, utility.

On the day we were ready to begin building, Donald informed us that he wouldn’t be there and asked if we could start the next day. Donald is a friendly ex-Ecuadorian Army Sergeant who works closely with the Frente de Defensa la Amazonia (i.e. Amazon Defense Coalition), a community led organization whose mission is to hold Texaco-Chevron responsible for the vast contamination of their land. Donald helps make the ecological disaster more real for visitors to Lago Agrio by leading them on a Toxic Tour of the many contaminated sites around Lago. Tours include opportunities for visitors to talk to the people who live on these poisoned lands. Instead of building that day, Donald invited us to come along to Frente’s annual retreat and be flies on the wall. Here’s their website:

Frente works closely with afflicted communities, has recently obtained funding from Sting’s wife, Trudi Styler, to install 50 rainwater filtration systems to supply drinking water to families unable to drink the water below their feet. It is no coincidence that Lago Agrio means 'sour lake'... Eventually the communities surrounding Lago Agrio won't have to rely on foriegn philanthropy to obtain clean drinking water and the means to live a normal life once again. There is currently a six billion dollar lawsuit in progress in Ecuadorian courts that could easily fund the kind of cleanup that is required for this area to begin it's recovery. For a great account of this lawsuit and other details about the history of oil contamination in Ecuador, follow the link below:

Jungle Law:Politics & Power.

I'll be updating this blog twice a month. Since my schedule is often dictated by the stage of our work, it may be somewhat irregular, but always twice a month. Thanks to everyone out there checking in!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hongos Muertos

We flew to Lago Agrio in just over a half-hour. It was raining buckets and the air was hot and heavy as we stepped off the plane. As our taxi trundled down the dirt road that led away from the airport towards our field site we were flanked nearly the entire way by oil-pipelines that snaked their way through the lush tropical landscape. The city we flew over was remarkably built up for being a roughneck oil outpost that was birthed in the sixties. On the ground things looked a little different. Put bluntly, Lago Agrio is a run-down, sketchy place that is in the midst of renovation. Despite the abandoned buildings and crumbling infrastructure, Lago is home to some of the coolest streetlights I have ever seen. The impetus for the building is likely a result of Lago’s proximity to the Amazon and the burgeoning ecotourism trade, a situation that is darkly ironic considering the contamination that squats over this region.

Our journey led us through narrowing tunnels of greenery until we stopped, donned galoshes and squished off the road into the thicket to take samples. Our field site is adjacent to a small, swampy lagoon of crude oil. We came to take soil samples for laboratory analysis to follow the progress of our site. Fire ants plagued our colleague, Ricardo, as we checked the small mountain of sawdust-filled burlap bags for mycelial growth.

The mushrooms died. It happens. As far as we can tell, the mycelium drowned. However, the last time samples were taken, there was a large shade cloth above the site and some happy oysters fruiting. The shade cloth was nowhere to be found and was likely stolen by someone who thought of a more immediate use for it besides sheltering some oil-munching mushrooms. Luckily, this is science. There are no failures, only lessons to be applied to the next experiment. Who could have predicted that water would be a problem in a rainforest?

We drove to another location where our new friend Donald had kindly allowed our team to transform his chicken coop into an ex situ experimental mushrooms site. Donald is an interesting man for another blog entry. Unfortunately, even in a chicken coop, those mushrooms drowned as well. They were being watered, but mushroom cultivation under any circumstances is somewhat of an art. A little care here, a little neglect there. Too much care, in the form of water, seemed to be the culprit here as well. Evolutionarily speaking, fungi are closer related to animals than they are to plants. This is reflected in their basic needs for metabolism: oxygen.

Undeterred, we gathered our samples and took the eight-hour bus ride back to Quito. That’s right, a short flight saves one the narrow roads and switchbacks that climb the 9,000 feet back up to Quito. However, the breathtaking country view and the chance to see Sharon Stone classic “The Quick and the Dead” in Spanish almost makes up for the butt-ache caused by such travel.

Later in the week, we had the unique opportunity of going out into a mountainous rainforest near a place called Nono to collect mushrooms with two local university students and Paul, Ecuador’s only Ecuadorian mushroom taxonomist. Accompanied by Ricardo, a 30-year veteran mushroom cultivator, we were out mushroom hunting with the two most knowledgeable mycologists in Ecuador. Stopping only to drop $2.50 on a 2 liter Coca Cola bottle filled with high-octane sugarcane liquor, we were well equipped to seek out strange new life forms.

Mycologist David Hawksworth has described the staggering biodiversity of the fungal kingdom by explaining that while there are 2,000 species of flowering plants in Great Britain, there are about 12,000 known species of fungi, with species still being characterized in that country. Great Britain happens to be the most well documented places on the planet when it comes to the species living there. While there are somewhere around 250,000 species of flowering plants globally, applying this 6:1 ratio of fungi to plants in Britain, Hawksworth estimates that there are probably 1,500,000 species of fungi worldwide. Of that (admittedly rough) figure, a mere 70,000-100,000 species have been discovered. While I am not an aspiring taxonomist, knowing your mushrooms can be rewarding. To enter the forest where we were doing our investigations, we crossed the bordering cow pastures encountering Ecuadorian ‘Hongos de Vaca’, which are hallucinogenic. Here’s a picture:

Back in Quito, we sat down for the next two days and hammered out a new methodological design to address the issues with our original set-up. It includes some heavy excavation and the expansion of the earlier mentioned chicken-coop to accommodate more ex situ boxes than before. To overcome the water issues that will no doubt continue to harass our efforts to give our oil-supping oysters a nice home, we will be constructing a roof over our new other field site and locating it on private land. We will also be traveling back and forth every two weeks to make sure our fungal friends have everything they need. In short, we will be spending a lot of time in Lago during March. Here’s some pictures of home:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The inside of our cinderblock house is orange. It was used to sell fish to the neighborhood and smelt (pun intended) as much. I live now at 9,000 feet in Quito, Ecuador now with my partner Jess. Although Jess is fluent, I barely speak Spanish, a fact I am much ashamed of, and I am working to change that by taking classes at four-hour intervals. Luckily, I understand more than I speak and soon I won’t sound like a stuttering seven-year-old. We’ve been here a little under two weeks. Most of our time has been spent making our house livable: buying a bed, poking at our garden, painting, getting hot water in the shower, putting up shelves and towel racks…you know, the stuff you are aching to read a blog about. However, there are more interesting aspects of my move to Ecuador that I have decided to share in this forum.

Tomorrow we fly to Lago Agrio, the epicenter of one of the worst ecological disasters on the planet, the result of a horrendous amount of oil contamination. Between 1964 and 1992, Texaco (now Chevron, in case you weren’t paying attention) spilled enough oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon that everyone likes to argue over exactly how many millions of gallons it was. Rest assured it was more than the Exxon Valdez belched into the Pacific Ocean. A lot more. Birth defects, cancer rates and general malaise are exceedingly high in the communities living near the estimated 600 swimming pool-sized, open, unlined waste pits across an area the size of Rhode Island. We are using oyster mushrooms to slurp up some of the muck and hopefully, eventually, make a tangible and beneficial impact in the communities afflicted by hazardous petroleum waste. The technology is called mycoremediation and was developed by Washington mycologist extraordinaire Paul Stamets. For more info see:

The mushrooms we see are the products of a complex, spider web-like network of cells called mycelium that interlink throughout every cubic inch of the soil environment. Anywhere there is soil, it is being held together by these fungal structures, where they play an integral role in the health every terrestrial ecosystem. Oyster mushrooms produce enzymes that sweat outside of their cells that normally are used to digest a component of wood called lignin. These extracellular lignin-peroxidases also posses the capacity to break the long chains of carbon that compose petroleum into smaller carbon compounds that the oysters are able to metabolize. That is, eat.

Great, so we’ll just come on in and get them ‘shrooms a-growin’ and be done with it, right? Well…sort of. Ours is a project where a lot of real people in the real world are involved. First of all, our science has to be unimpeachable. We have to know how much and how best to apply mycoremediation techniques in one of the most biodiverse environments on the planet. We have to educate ourselves by visiting the contaminated sites and cooperating with the people living there. As we do this, I’ll be updating this blog as much as possible with pictures and first-hand accounts of our progress. For those thirsting for more details about our project than are to be found here, please visit our (somewhat interim) project page here:

Cloud Forest Institute

As soon as this summer, we will be hosting university students interested in studying abroad and service learning. They will gain a unique opportunity to learn about Latin American political ecology and get hands-on experience applying mycoremediation techniques in a field and laboratory setting. For those interested in this exciting educational adventure, please email: