Fungi are already pretty special critters, but now researchers, engineers, and big businesses are working together to add new planet-saving tricks to the fungal repertoire.
Simply put, if the Kingdom Fungi didn’t exist, we likely wouldn’t either—nor would the planet we know and love. It may sound like a rather nasty job, but the fungi of the world happily recycle, reuse, and reabsorb waste of just about every kind. In other words, fungi make the nutrient-world go round.
In the process yeasts, moulds, and mushrooms also produce a whole bunch of goodies humans and other animals have learned to cultivate and enjoy. Beer, truffles, and cheese—the list of edible products alone is impressive, without mentioning the global lifesaving qualities of antibiotics.
So what could possibly make fungi cooler? How about if they were able to put a dent in one of the biggest and most notorious pollution problems facing the planet today: plastics. Not only are plastics derived from petroleum components, they also also virtually indestructible. By some estimates, every piece of plastic ever produced is likely still around and kicking.
A handful of people around the world are making waves in the packaging, building, furniture and rubbish markets, introducing mushroom composite as a direct replacement for plastics.
Han Wosten, a microbiologist with The Netherland’s Utrecht University has spent the last 24 years studying fungi. He says there are a few crucial characteristics of fungi, in particular the mushroom-producing varieties, which make them good candidates for use in these industries.
‘Fungi secrete enzymes into their environment that break down hard to decay components in substrates like wood and plant materials,’ says Wosten. ‘Unlike us humans, which keep our digestive enzymes in our bodies, specifically our stomachs, fungi release them outside of themselves so they can attack the substrate directly.’
Mushrooms can also penetrate deep into the items they’re decomposing, using individual treads called hyphae to spread out, acquire new territory, and form network like fungal bodies known as mycelium.
‘Many organisms like yeasts can only grow on the outside of materials, but hyphae can colonise what they’re breaking down inside and out, thereby getting to all parts.’
He adds people used to think fungi were simplistic forms of life, but this is a notion since disproven. ‘People assumed each hyphae in a mycelium network was similar in purpose and composition, but our lab found even neighbouring hyphae can differ in their components and behaviour,’ says Wosten.
This is a good trait for the fungi, able to use these diverse hyphae to test out new environments before exposing the larger organism, and helps makes them such amazing decomposers.
Wosten’s lab has been experimenting with different ways of breaking down agricultural waste—things like sawdust, straw, and wood pulp—by growing mushroom-bearing fungi in it. As the colonising hyphae travel across waste particles they essentially glue them together and are then heat-killed after a few days of growth.
‘What you get is a composite product like concrete, where the waste is the cement and the metal [reinforcing] bars mixed in are the fungi,’ says Wosten.
Across the ocean, Ecovative is using this same type of formula—this year opening a full-scale, 20,000 sq. foot plant in Troy, New York to produce their patented Mushroom® Packaging, expanding on their existing 35,000 sq. foot headquarters in Green Island, NY. And they’ve got big backers, like Crate & Barrel, Dell, Puma, and 3M.
Melissa Jacobsen, director of Strategic Communications for Ecovative, explains in an email that the company’s origins go back to a 2006 college project undertaken by founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre. Bayer had already been thinking about clever ways to deal with agricultural waste, having grown up on a farm in Vermont where one of his main responsibilities was shovelling woodchips into their gasifier.
He recalled these woodchips would sometimes be clumped together by webs of white fibres, and upon further investigation, learned these fibres were the hyphae and mycelium of mushrooms. Initially the pair wanted to pursue insulation applications, which today they finally are, but their flagship product wound up being Mushroom® Packaging, a Styrofoam alternative.
This came after the duo got major support post graduation to pursue their venture further, first from their professor Burt Swersey in 2007, then in 2008 winning financial endorsements from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Food and Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation, plus a $750,000 prize from the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. By 2009, huge companies were already signing on to help with prototype costs.
While the uses may have changed since their initial concept, the core components of the product haven’t, the packaging made from local farmer’s agricultural waste and mycelium. In 2012 the billion-dollar packaging and materials giant Sealed Air (think Bubble Wrap) signed a license to produce a cornhusk based version of Ecovative’s fungal product in a retrofitted Iowa factory.
Jacobsen describes the packaging production process begins by introducing fungi to cleaned waste particles, then transporting this mulch-like mixture into sealed grow bags.
‘Once it’s fully-grown, we grind it up into loose particles again and then blow it into a custom designed cavity. Over the course of three to five days, the mycelium reconnects its matrix and grows right to the shape of the mould,’ writes Jacobsen. ‘When it’s fully white and grown through, we eject it from the mould and put it into ovens to stop the growth process.’
She writes the end product can go into your home compost bin, but can also be used as mulch in the yard or garden.
In 2012 Ecovative released two additional products—Myco Board, an engineered wood alternative, and a Grow-It-Yourself consumer kit—both made by modifications to their Mushroom® Packaging process. The Myco Board is generated by applying a final round of heat compression, while the consumer creation is basically just their raw bagged material dehydrated, which they ship all over the world for others to experiment with.
Architect David Benjamin used the kit to grow bricks he designed, then got Ecovative to help him scale his operation, leading to the creation of the largest mushroom-material structure ever made, a 40ft Hy-Fi tower.
Not only will Ecovative’s products cut back on plastic waste—not reliant on petroleum derivatives and biodegradable—their Myco Board wood alternatives are also free from the unpleasant chemicals conventional particle or fibreboard materials normally come with, like urea-formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Jacobsen writes that Ecovative will be concentrating most of their efforts going forward on expanding the Myco Board product, and convincing more companies to adopt their technologies in existing manufacturing lines.
But of course, the team is still testing out new products, like a more cushiony foam good called Myco Flex. And that’s not overly surprising—according to Wosten the opportunities for those working with fungus is in some ways, endless.
‘Considering there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of different mushroom species alone, with variability as big as that between a human and a cow or a cat,’ says Wosten. ‘With such huge variation we expect many different properties.’
Wosten’s lab is currently experimenting with different fungal species and growing methods to expand on the diversity of mushroom-goods, specifically more rubbery or elastic products. He says some fungi can even decompose plastics, but this requires some extra effort. The fungus can’t eat a lot of what it breaks when dining on plastics, so needs sugar-encouragement to do their job, and the process winds up taking much longer.
Austrian designer Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisinger, also from Utrecht University, have paired up to see if they can grow food from plastic-eating fungi, so far developing a tabletop fungal-grow tool called a Fungi Mutarium that makes an edible, jellylike substance. Others are using 3-D scanning techniques to create porous, biodegradable fungi-infusible furniture, like Erik Klarenbeek.
Though the industry has grown exponentially in the past few years, the mushroom plastics boom has yet to come but, hopefully for our planet, at this rate it shouldn’t take too long.
If people like Bayer at Ecovative and Wosten have their way, in a few years you could be reading this article on a fungi-composite computer screen, sipping your coffee in a mushroom mug, and boasting about your bountiful flower garden nursed on household mushroom-waste.