Press release from March 24, 2011

Untapped potential

Fungi set to be deployed against hazardous chemicals far more often

Leipzig. Ecosystem services of the type provided by fungi could in future be used far more frequently in environmental technology than before. Their huge potential has so far barely been tapped, according to scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) writing in the March edition of journal Nature Reviews Microbiology. However, in order to harness fungi’s amazing abilities for environmental protection, they should not be treated like inanimate catalysts; instead, their ecology needs to be respected. Although fungi make up the majority of living biomass in the soil and are also prevalent in bodies of water, hitherto they have hardly been used for biological cleanup.

Image of the soil fungi Fusarium oxysporum

Image of the soil fungi Fusarium oxysporum taken by a Laser Scanning Microscope (Images with a higher resolution can be obtained by the Department of Public Relations)
Source: Dr. Thomas Neu/UFZ

Terms of use

This is surprising, for bioremediation technologies have many advantages over energy-intensive, intricate physical and chemical methods. Although cleanup takes longer, it is much cheaper and also more sustainable. With mainly bacteria being used previously, there is hence a trend towards passive cleanup methods in contaminated soils known as monitored natural attenuation. Even if they take longer than ex-situ techniques, these methods are still more energy-efficient and in the end result in ecologically intact and hence functioning ecosystems in the soil. In their review, the Leipzig-based researchers showed that apart from bacteria, fungi also have an important part to play in cleanup technologies. "Apart from their low costs, one important argument for using fungi in passive methods in future is the growing acceptance of risk-based remediation standards. These standards are already part of legislation in the USA and the UK," explains Prof Hauke Harms from UFZ. "There are therefore important financial, ecological and legal reasons for obtaining a better understanding of how fungi live so that they can be used in environmental technologies."

In the researchers’ view, fungi could be a central element of new biotechnologies helping to clean polluted soil, water or air. Previously, however, success has been limited because too little attention was paid to the ecology of fungi and often they were simply used as bacteria substitutes without exploiting their genuine strengths such as their extensive degradation capacities and their natural adaptation to certain habitats. Most fungi which can degrade pollutants are either ascomycetes or basidiomycetes. At present, only little is known about fungi from other phyla in this respect.

Fungi are a separate kingdom in nature alongside animals and plants. They include not just the well-known edible mushrooms but also symbionts of for instance plants (mycorrhizae) and algae (lichen). So far, fewer than 100,000 of the estimated 1.5 million species of fungi have been described. Since they are a sort of macroorganism packed into microscopic units, they have superbly adapted to diverse environmental conditions. Fungi form up to 75 per cent of the microbial biomass in the soil. Unlike bacteria, they do not depend on continuous paths of water in order to spread. In 2007, microbiologists from UFZ showed that fungal hyphae play an important part in the spread of bacteria in the soil. Although air and a lack of moisture prevent their spread, bacteria use the fungal hyphae to move through the soil as if on a sort of motorway network.
Tilo Arnhold


Harms, H., D. Schlosser, L. Y. Wick (2011):
Untapped potential: exploiting fungi in bioremediation of hazardous chemicals. Nature Reviews Microbiology 9: 177-192. doi:10.1038/nrmicro2519

More information

Prof. Hauke Harms, Dr. Dietmar Schlosser, Dr. Lukas Y. Wick
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Telephone: +49 341 235 1260, -1329, -1316
Prof. Hauke Harms
Dr. Dietmar Schlosser
Dr. Lukas Y. Wick


Tilo Arnhold
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Public Relations
+49 341 235 1635


Background - microbiological diversity:

UFZ Research group: Environmental Mycology

UFZ research group: Bioavailability

By fungus through the soil (press release in German dated 8 February 2007):

UFZ experts: ‘Regarding biodiversity’ (article in Biodiversität und Boden, pp 35-37)

At the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists study the causes and repercussions of far-reaching environmental changes. They conduct research into water resources, biodiversity, the consequences of climate change and ways of adaptation, environmental engineering and biotechnology, bioenergy, how chemicals behave in the environment and their impact on human health, modelling, and aspects of the social sciences. The common theme of this diverse research is that it serves the sustainable use of natural resources and helps permanently protect these vital resources in the face of global change. At its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg, UFZ currently employs about 1,000 people. It is financed by the German government as well as the governments of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association helps solve major, pressing challenges facing society, science and industry by means of first-rate research in six core fields: Energy, Earth and the Environment, Health, Key Technologies, the Structure of Matter, Transport and Space. With more than 30,000 employees at 17 research centres and an annual budget of some €3 billion, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s biggest scientific organisation. Its work continues the heritage of scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-94).