Quirks and Quarks

Incredible dandelions could hold the key to growing plants on the oilsands

Fungus treated plants can turn hydrocarbons in oilsands' tailings into CO2 and water.
Dandelions found growing in the oil sands' coarse tailings contain a fungus that can help it clean up petrochemicals. (KARL-JOSEF HILDENBRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

This originally aired Oct. 27, 2017.

The discovery

Years ago, a keen-eyed scientist spotted something unusual - dandelions growing on coarse tailings from the oilsands. Since coarse tailings aren't exactly where you'd expect to see plant life thriving, he knew exactly who to bring the plants to. Dr. Susan Kaminskyj, a professor of biology at the University of Saskatchewan, studies plants that live in extreme environments. She discovered a fungus living in the dandelions that gave it the ability to grow in coarse tailings, which were stripped of all plant nutrients and still retain a residue of petrochemicals. And not only that, but the plants can also clean up the coarse tailings it grows in. 

How scientists tested it

Dr. Kaminskyj isolated the fungus strain from the dandelion roots, but it's not plant specific. She tested the fungus on tomato plants because they typically need a lot of water and fertilizer to grow. "If you have coarse tailings' sand and sprinkle seed on it and even give it fertilizer, nothing happens. The seeds don't grow. If you do exactly the same experiment and add some of our fungal strain, at least 90 per cent of those seeds will geminate, will grow, regardless of fertilizer." 

Untreated tomato seedlings compared with seedlings treated with TSTh20-1 fungus after growing for two weeks on coarse tailings. (Susan Kaminskyj)

The potential 

There are approximately 800 square kilometres of coarse tailings currently awaiting revegetation, which when it's done now is extremely challenging and costly to do. Dr. Kaminskyj is hoping that oilsands' companies will allow her to test this fungus out on some of their tailings.