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: Alida@cloudforest.org


Tanya said...

Wow Brian - this is awesome. I will definitely keep updated on your blog. At the end, maybe you can even publish a book from these writings! You will definitely be equipped to give presentations on your work as well. Maybe even be a seminar speaker at PSU someday... - T

Timothy said...

way to go man
much love like to see more
and some pics too
tim says boo-ya !

Vic said...

Myco...what? I ferget yer one of them college boys.
Well, it's very interesting so far. Did you say you were expecting conversation with the oil companies? Your mom has been hinting that I should join her on her visit to you.
Damn! Now I gotta enter that word verification code. What the hell is a preqbotl? Is that one of those mushrooms?

Marilee said...

I am trying to write my first comment in this blog and don't know what I am doing so this is trial and error.

Marilee said...

Okay, so this is how you do it.

Dale said...

How has the flooding we have been hearing about effected you and your endeavors?

djashtray said...

2 ideas...vertical logs with spawnplugs, chopped then buried at 4 inches with the wood exposed so that fruiting will occur. It's impossible to over-water logs. Also oysters love coffee grounds, you can "case" colonized logs in coffee grounds in the earth. In my experience they seem to vigorously colonize extremely wet coffee grounds, they won't fruit until they naturally dry a bit, but just ideas...