Fungus could clean up oil spills, oilsands tailings: researchers

Two week old control (left) or TSTh-inoculated (right) tomato seedlings were transplanted to coarse tailings (CT), then given ultrapure water for an additional 2 weeks. Supplied / University of Saskatchewan-PLOS One

A fungus discovered by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan could help clean up oil spills and restore oilsands tailings.

The discovery was made after testing was done on a dandelion found growing on a coarse tailings site.

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Scientists found a property in the fungus allowed plants to grow and thrive on coarse tailings.

“There are lots of micro-organisms out there that eat hydrocarbons for a living. But what is really neat about this one is that it’s in symbiosis with a plant,” said Tim Repas, one of the authors of a paper published in the journal PLOS One.

“It’s not only eating the hydrocarbons, but it’s letting the plant survive in these environments.”

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Susan Kaminskyj, a biology professor at the university, said her team found more than 90 per cent of seeds treated with the fungus sprouted on coarse tailings while no untreated seeds sprouted.

She said as the plants grew, they also cleaned up the soil beneath them.

Kaminskyj said the discovery could potentially lead to faster clean ups of oil spills or in the recovery of tailings.

“With our process, they could just lay down our treated seeds and then check on the site every so often,” Kaminskyj said in a release.

“They could put less energy, more effectively, into a much larger space.”

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The researchers also found the fungus was able to grow with diesel, crude oil and similar materials as its only nutrient source.

The team has started real-world testing at two petrochemical spill sites in Alberta and British Columbia, with the first results expected in 2018.

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