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: Alida@cloudforest.org