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Fungus could resolve South Africa’s asbestos problem

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A sample from the oldest collection of Bracket Fungi in Africa. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica.

Fungus could resolve South Africa’s asbestos problem 

The environmental and human health impact of asbestos mining is well documented. Rehabilitation of these mines and the potential use as agricultural land are essential. Fungus could be the answer.

By Leon Louw

If “out of the box” thinking is required to solve complex environmental problems in Africa, maybe we should go and look where nobody else does. 

WhyAfrica did exactly that and found a bag full of new fascinating ideas, incredible scientific research, and unbelievable stories to keep us busy for the next few months. We recently visited one of South Africa’s 22 biodiversity biobanks and found an almost forgotten African treasure. More surprisingly though, we stumbled across possible solutions to a problem that has haunted the South African mining and environmental management fraternities for a long time.

Biodiversity biobanks preserve genetic resources, including reproductive tissues such as seeds, egg and sperm, and other tissues including blood, DNA extracts and microbial cultures, representing all species, strains, varieties, and breeds (including domesticated crops and livestock).

These collections can be used to support research, capacity development and the development of new or improved products and practices in the fields of agriculture, mining, energy, human health and well-being, environmental management, and conservation biology.

South Africa has seven main biobank institutions now represented by the Biodiversity Biobanks of South Africa (BBSA). South Africa already has a wealth of biobank samples, collected over many years from across Africa, and if these are appropriately secured, they could be used to create a time-series of biomaterials that will help us understand change, and allow us to predict how this change will play out into the future.

WhyAfrica plans to visit a number of these biobanks over the next few months. We started our biobank tour by visiting Riana Jacobs, Curator and researcher at the National Collection of Fungi, Biosystematics Division at the ARC-Plant Protection Research Institute, Pretoria, South Africa earlier this year.

According to Jacobs, the National Collection of Fungi is the largest public assessable fungal collection in Africa. It houses 31 000 living fungal strains from 500 hosts plants representing 159 genera.

“These include strains from all the genera previously reported to have the ability to break down asbestos. As these stains are of South Africa origin the aspect of utilising the strains for commercial purposes supports various international and national initiatives including benefit sharing under the Nagoya protocol and National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEM:BA) regulations,” says Jacobs.

Fungus and its application in mining (Fungus could resolve South Africa’s asbestos problem)

If you’re in the mining or environmental management sectors and you wonder what fungus has to do with you, only a little bit of research will unveil the incredible and diverse applications of fungus in mining, remediation, and rehabilitation.

For example, lichens and fungi can colonise and dissolve constituents of asbestos and studies have shown that certain fungi can solubilise low grade iron ore for the bioleaching process.

In South Africa alone, there are reportedly close to 5700 derelict asbestos mines that pose a serious environmental and health threat to communities in these areas.

Asbestos mining in South Africa began in the 1930s (Hart, Asbestos in South Africa. Journal of South African Institute of mining and metallurgy (1988). 88:185).

Mining and production methods were crude, with the fibre being separated from the ore by hand, and in some cases the mines were literally spade-and-wheelbarrow operations operated by farmers who had found deposits on their land.

South Africa was the third largest exporter of asbestos in the world with production peaking at 380,000 tons in 1977. By 1981, the foreign companies had withdrawn from active asbestos mining in South Africa, and a long series of mergers and acquisitions had reduced the number of major producers to two: The Griqualand Exploration & Finance Company (Gefco) and Msauli Asbes.

Gefco produced the amphiboles crocidolite and amosite-commonly known as blue and brown asbestos-in the north-western Cape and in the north-eastern Transvaal.

Msauli produced chrysotile, or white asbestos, in the KaNgwane homeland near Barberton. All production of asbestos ceased in 2001.

Reducing asbestos for bioremediation (Fungus could resolve South Africa’s asbestos problem)

The environmental and human health impact of asbestos mining is well documented, with more than 200 cases of Mesothelioma reported in South Africa (National Cancer Registry of South Africa. Summary statistics of cancer diagnosed histologically in 2014).

Mining of asbestos took place in four of the nine provinces of South Africa. Rehabilitation of these mines and their potential use as agricultural land are essential. The impact of more available land for agricultural activities as well as the reduced health risk to communities that live close to these asbestos mines are important.

The screening of fungal strains in the South African National Collection of Fungi for their bio-weathering ability to reduce asbestos in soil and thus facilitate bioremediation, will not only provide a possible alternative to the current strategies as set out in the framework for the Management of Contaminated Land (2010) but also expand the mandate of a national asset (the SANCF) to assist in bioremediation in South Africa.

According to a report titled “Bioremediation of asbestos contamination used fungi” prepared by Jacobs, bioremediation is delimited as a process which relies on biological mechanisms to reduce, degrade, detoxify, mineralise, or transform pollutants to an innocuous state.

“The selection criteria used to find a suitable bioremediation agent include the nature of the pollutant, depth and degree of pollution, type of environment, location, and the cost of the operation.

“On the other hand, performance criteria include oxygen and nutrient concentrations, temperature, pH, and other abiotic factors (Azubuike et al Bioremediation techniques-classification based on site of application: principles, advantages, limitations and prospects. World J of Microbiology Biotechnology (2016) 32:180).

Bioremediation techniques

“Land farming is amongst the simplest bioremediation techniques owing to its low cost and minor equipment requirements. It has been reported that the when the pollutant lies < 1m below the soil surface, bioremediation might proceed without excavation, while pollutant lying > 1.7 m below the soil surface may need to be transported to ground level for bioremediation to be effective. (Nikolopoulou et al., 2013).

“Phytoremediation refers to the use of plants and associated soil microbes to reduce the concentrations or toxic effects of contaminants in the environment (Greipsson, 2011, Phytoremediation, Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):7).

“It represents a cost-effective, efficient, environmental, and eco-friendly in situ applicable strategy. The result of phytoremediation may be three-fold including risk containment, phyto-extraction of metals and durable land management where phyto-extraction gradually improves soil quality for subsequent cultivation of crops with high market value.

Iron, a structural component of most asbestos, is thought to play a crucial role in asbestos toxicity. Since iron represents an essential element for soil microorganisms, many of them have developed mechanisms to scavenge this element from poorly soluble forms.

“Species reported to have such ability includes Aspergillus tubingenesis, Coemansia reversa, Verticillium leptobactrum and Fusarium oxysporum being the most effective.

“The fungal responses following exposure to asbestos fibres also have been investigated and in liquid cultures, the fibres were visibly cleared from the suspension because they were tightly bound to the fungal hyphae. By binding the fibres and depriving them of iron, selected species/strains of soil fungi might represent interesting tools for the bioremediation of asbestos-contaminated soils.”

Pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical technologies for recovery of metals from low grade ores require high energy and capital costs. The use of microorganisms in leaching of mineral ores have gained importance over the last few years as mining companies focus more on reducing costs and improving their environmental performance.

Microbes have been known to convert metal compounds into their water-soluble forms and are biocatalysts of leaching processes. There are several studies where this process has been carried out and where it has been extremely successful.

The use of fungus and microbes in cleaning up polluted areas and other applications in environmental management and mine restoration, is a developing field. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that fungus and biodiversity biobanks can play an important role in the future.

Leon Louw is the founder of WhyAfrica and the editor of the WhyAfrica magazine

Fungus could resolve South Africa’s asbestos problem 

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Fungus could resolve South Africa’s asbestos problem


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