EPA grant explores mushrooms, selenium

Exploring methods to use contaminated soil to grow mushrooms is all in one day’s work for a professor at SIUE. Zhi-Qing Lin, associate professor of biological sciences, is using soil with high levels of selenium to grow mushrooms in a lab at SIUE.

Lin, the recipient of a P3 level grant of more than $14,500 from the EPA, is using plant material and soil from the California region to compost a material that he will use as a substrate to grow mushrooms that will have higher then normal levels of selenium.

Lin, Haddad, and Morrissy (left to right) show off their research in growing selenium enriched mushrooms in the lab. photo courtesy of Susanna Lu.

“Selenium is an essential nutrient for humans and animals. We have to get a certain amount of selenium as a daily intake. If you don’t have enough selenium, you will have some health problems–heart disease, immune system, a number of problems,” said Lin.

Lin also said that too much selenium creates issues of selenium toxicity and that there is a small window between too little and too much selenium. Selenium is naturally found in some plants and vegetables, but Lin stated most Americans get selenium from wheat based foods.

The research is being conducted because there is an issue of selenium contamination in different regions of the American west. Research is being conducted to help stem the accumulation of selenium in the soil. According to Lin, agricultural irrigation causes excess amounts of selenium to be leached from the soil.

“Agriculture production, and irrigation causes selenium to leach out from the soil, and then get into the drainage. In the central valley, there is a major agriculture production area of the country and how to manage the selenium contaminated drainage is a huge issue,” said Lin. “Selenium contamination is an environmental problem in the western United States–Colorado, North and South Dakota, California especially. It is naturally occurring in the soil, but it becomes an environmental problem when the selenium becomes accumulated in the aquatic ecosystem. So, birds and fish will accumulate it certain levels and a poison or toxic effect will occur.”

The toxic effects were discovered around the 1980’s when a lot of irrigation runoff in California was directed towards marsh lands.

“Before the 1980’s, they put the drainage water into the marsh lands at the Kesterson wildlife refuge. But a few years later, they found dead birds and other dead wildlife in the  Kesterson Reservoir site. Since then, people have done a lot of studies and found that selenium contamination was the cause,” said Lin.

Lin is using the money from the EPA grant to study different methods to grow mushrooms that will have higher levels of selenium. He sees this as important because not everyone can eat wheat products due to allergy issues. Being able to grow mushrooms with higher levels of selenium will give these and other people another source for the nutrient.

Lin has two students working with him on this project, Jenny Morrissy–a graduate student in environmental science, and Sam Haddad, an Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities associate. According to Lin, Morrissy is focusing on the chemical speciation of selenium enriched mushrooms, and Haddad is helping to prepare the selenium enriched composted plant material. The material is being composted at the environmental science field school on SIUE’s campus.

Once they have completed the research, Lin stated that as a team they will travel and demonstrate that they can use this type of composted soil and plant material to grow the enriched mushrooms. Lin stated there is a conference in Washington D.C. that the team will travel to in order to present the results of the research along with other grant recipients.

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