State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

Nature’s Toxic Crusaders

By Mikel Alian

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the globe will take to their nearby shores on Sept. 15 for the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Their goal is to lighten the trash load on beaches, oceans and waterways, in an effort to protect wildlife, swimmers, and the local tourism industries dependent on these bodies of water.

FEMA saving wildlife after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Miller.

Cigarette butts, bottles, and food containers are easily collected, but beyond the shoreline, things get murky. Oil spills, agricultural runoff and radioactive waste are being injected into the planet’s soil and water as a result of human industry. Oil spills harm wildlife by damaging their immune and reproductive systems, and causing dehydration, hypothermia and drowning. These spills also threaten local economies, as we have seen in the Gulf Coast, where tourist beaches have been closed and fisheries damaged. Pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture also end up in the ocean, causing harmful algal blooms and “dead zones,” where water becomes anoxic and unable to sustain marine life. Radioactivity is known to cause genetic mutations in organisms and their offspring, such as butterflies found near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Pioneers in the field of conservation and sustainability are employing nature’s own biological task force to help clean up this industrial waste:


Kate Orff, assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, has coined the term “Oyster-tecture” for her vision of harnessing the cleaning power of oysters. She plans to deploy a living oyster reef in New York City’s Gowanus Canal, an EPA-designated Superfund

Oyster reef creation off of Governor’s Island. Photo: New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

site that has been called one of the nation’s most polluted bodies of water. Orff states that amidst the urban sprawl, we as humans “have forgotten our relationship with the plants and animals that live alongside us and the dirt beneath our feet.” She strives to physically rebuild these connections, bringing urbanism and ecology together.

Regarding the use of oysters to clean polluted waterways, Marine Biologist Ray Grizzle says, “The oyster is the perfect aquatic engineer for the job. It pumps water to feed, retains any polluted particles and releases the rest—purified. Each one filters about 50 gallons of water a day … there’s no human engineering substitute for these living things that clean the water.”

Artificial oyster reefs have also been built in areas such as Governor’s Island in New York, Boston Harbor, and Beach Creek in Georgia. They take 7-10 years to reach maturity but they also build foundations for new ecosystem growth and future local oyster industries.


The “grand molecular disassemblers of nature” is what Paul Stamets calls mycelium, the branching roots of a fungus. A mycologist for over 30 years, Stamets has won awards for his work and written extensively about mushroom cultivation. His book “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save The World” elucidates his theories on “mycoremediation,” the use of fungi to remove toxins from the environment.

Mycelium of an Oyster Mushroom, the kind tested at Newtown Creek, capable of breaking down pollutants. Photo: Tobi Kellner

Mycelium naturally secretes enzymes and acids that break down the building blocks of plant fiber, which are structurally similar to many organic pollutants. These roots can even extract heavy metals like mercury and cadmium from the environment and transport them into the mushroom body itself, which can then be removed.

Stamets’ research suggests this process can be adapted to clean oceans and waterways by deploying floating sacks of mycelium mixed with straw or wood chips. The sacks can absorb and constrain oil slicks, or be placed downstream from farms to catch E. coli before it reaches essential waterways. In his Ted Talk, Stamets discusses how three mushroom species decreased fecal levels of coliform bacteria from a horse farm by 10,000 times in less than 72 hours. Mycoremediation is being tested at another New York City Superfund site, Newtown Creek, to help clean up 150 years of oil seepage, sewage overflow and chemical pollution from factories. He also postulates that mycoremediation could be used to clean up radioactive contamination in Japan caused by the Fukushima disaster. Stamets is offering two-day educational seminars on mycoremediation for those interested in learning more.

Further funding and experimentation is required to know how these practices will be best applied on a large scale—these are important investments. Nature’s cleaning services could save countless dollars on alternative man-made solutions, and on mitigating the issues we will face (food scarcity, damage to local economies, and health care) as a result of widespread loss of fish and ecosystems … some food for thought the next time you dine on the half-shell or fill your plate with veggie stir-fry.

Interested in learning more? CERC offers a course in ecology and sustainable water management. The goals of this course are to explain how environmental science informs the development of guidelines for sustainable ecosystem management and to expose the myth that environmental protection is an unaffordable luxury during tough economic times. The course meets on Tuesdays, Oct. 16, 23, 30, Nov. 13, 20 (five sessions; 6:10-8:10PM; skip Nov. 6), and is also available online. For information, visit CERC’s website or contact Desmond Beirne at

Mikel Alian is a student in CERC’s Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. Twitter: @Mikelita.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

Oysters are one of the most incredible creatures on earth. I’m so glad we discovered they are such good cleaners!