Researchers at Strathclyde University are exploring the use of fungi in strengthening soil and reducing infiltration of rainwater, a common cause of landslips.
The project will use fungi and soil collected from the UK and Italy to understand how the growth of different fungal species can be controlled to improve the engineering performance of natural soils.
Lead researcher Dr Grainne El Mountassir, a senior lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has received a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship worth £1.3m over four years for the project. Cardiff University, the University of Naples Federico II and engineering company BAM Ritchies are also partners in the study.
“Our research aims to understand the factors controlling fungal growth in natural soils, such that we can engineer it to grow over a large area,” El Mountassir said. “We will be examining different types of soil, including pyroclastic soil which originated from eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, and looking at how fungal growth changes soil cohesion.”
El Mountassir explained how the fungus builds a 3D network of biomass which acts both to bind soil particles together but also releases products that can modify how water moves through soil.
The idea of the study, she said, is to create a biological geotextile at the soil surface which could reduce the ability of water to penetrate into soil, improving the stability of slopes after heavy rainfall.
“Fungi are incredibly resilient and adaptable,” she commented. “Fungi on the floors of North American forests are believed to be some of the oldest living organisms of Earth, with individual organisms dated as around 1500 years old.
“We know a lot about the uses of fungi in making food and drink, such as bread and beer, but we know relatively little about them in other contexts.
“The research is part of a transition towards a more sustainable, low-carbon civil engineering sector and as a growth-based system, it would reduce the amount of materials needing to be transported to site.”