Soon it may be possible for Americans to partly improve their health by eating mushrooms enriched with a mineral nutrient called selenium. And it could be said that it was partially due to the efforts of a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville science project team.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded the SIUE science team with an Honorable Mention at its recent People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) competition in Washington, D.C. The SIUE students included: Samuel Haddad, a senior biological sciences major, Jie Hong, a graduate environmental sciences student, and Jennifer Morrissy, a graduate environmental sciences student. Dr. Zhiqing Lin, associate professor of biological sciences and environmental sciences, was their advisor. The team was chosen in the EPA's second and final phase of the competition, which awarded and recognized college and university teams for their innovative environmental solutions.
The EPA competition was held during the 8th Annual National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall. More than 45 teams, including SIUE, showcased their projects designed to protect the environment, encourage economic growth and use natural resources more sustainably. Fifteen university and college teams from across the country were awarded more than $1 million in grants. SIUE did not receive money in the last round, but was given an honorable mention.
"We were very proud of our project," Haddad said.
In the first phase of the EPA's competition, which occurred last year, the SIUE team was awarded a $14,539 grant to demonstrate their research idea. The students proposed evaluating the use of selenium-laden plant wastes from the San Joaquin Valley in Central California to produce selenium-enriched edible mushrooms.
"Selenium is naturally reoccurring in the soil, so there are traces of it in our food," said Morrissy. "At very high levels, selenium can be harmful."
High levels of selenium were detected in agricultural soil and drainage in Central Florida, said Haddad.
"In the western part of the San Joaquin Valley where there are high levels of naturally occurring selenium, they began to see some reproductive issues and even death in birds and fish," Morrissy said.
That's not to say that humans would be affected, Haddad added, at least not yet.
Treating the polluted soil and agriculture drainage would be the first step, the team surmised. Plants were planted and used to clean up the over-rich selenium soil and drainage, Lin said.
The second part of their research dealt with making a healthier mushroom. The students tested 10 different kinds of edible mushrooms, such as White Button, Portabella and Oyster Baby, to measure their selenium contents. What they found were very small amounts in most of the mushrooms.
"What we propose to do then is to treat mushroom growth substrates and raise the levels of selenium," said Haddad.
The students propose to take the plants used to treat the over-rich selenium soil in California, turn them into compost and use it to grow mushrooms.
"We're testing the mushrooms to get the right selenium concentration and a safe number," Haddad said.
The researchers also are collaborating with Kristine Jarden, a lecturer in management and marketing in the SIUE School of Business. Jarden's senior class is working on ways to commercialize the technology involved in the students' project, Lin said.