Not the Only Fungi in the Room: How Fungi Can Save the World
Hema Nookala posted on April 16, 2018 | | 1083 views

Humans are no strangers to fungi—they find their way into our soups and stir-fries in the form of mushrooms, often in a variety of shapes, sizes and textures. But the usefulness of fungi, whether it be in the form of yeasts, mushrooms or mold, doesn’t end with food. There are over 5 million species of fungi and, just like us, they need to eat to survive.

The benefits of fungi aren’t common knowledge. As with any area of study, its limitations and uses are discovered through constant research. One mushroom enthusiast, Sonia Travaglini, a mechanical engineering PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, is developing and testing various mushroom materials. While Travaglini’s work may sound futuristic, various companies and researchers have been looking to fungi as a way to solve many of our problems.

How the Food Is Fed

Fungi are neither plants nor animals, but rather living organisms that have nuclei with chromosomes, similar to animal cells. Fungi don’t have chloroplasts like plants for photosynthesis, so they need to rely on external compounds for food, and this is where they prove to be useful.

Fungi eat food by spreading a network of branching tube filaments called hyphae. To absorb nutrients, the hyphae secretes digestive enzymes that break down the feeding substrate. Each species of fungi has a particular taste, which works in our favor. They’re able to eat a variety of materials—from sawdust to plastic to heavy metals. Using waste material as a food source, they turn that material into new, natural and compostable materials that can either become a useable material or be left to decompose.

If you’re interested in seeing a time lapse of mushrooms growing in the wild; watch the video below.

Travaglini is researching the saw-dust eating Ganoderma lucidum fungi, commonly known as the Reishi mushroom. The mushroom feeds on sawdust and can grow roots and form cellular material at industrial sites where sawdust waste is a problem. Once the spores are added and they’re allowed to grow for a few weeks, the sawdust is converted into heavy, solid, force-bearing mushroom flesh.

If the growth is stopped at an earlier stage, it creates a lighter material—evidence that we can tailor fungi type and time of growth to create materials that suit our needs. Once the desired material is formed, the mushrooms are killed by denaturing in a 70°C oven. Among the potential uses for the Reishi mushroom are insulation, bricks, packaging, leather and furniture.

Sonia Travaglini measures a mushroom brick, which is a product of her research.
Sonia Travaglini measures a mushroom brick, which is a product of her research.

Growing a New World

Imagine a world where tall skyscrapers, stylish handbags and the chair you’re sitting on while reading this article are all made out of mushrooms. It may sound far-fetched, but we are stepping into the territory where low-processed, natural materials can be created with uses that span several industries. Not only do their applications span industries, but fungi can be used to alleviate many issues around the world. We are plagued by social, financial, medical and environmental problems that take on different forms all over the world.

Fungi, used as an alternative to wood, real leather and combined metals, reduces processing, which in turn reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the capability of fungi to break down various types of waste makes it ideal for dealing with toxic materials. A prime example would be finding a fungus that eats straw and oil: such a fungus could clean up and deal with oil spills, while creating a waste product that would eventually be compostable.

Reishi mushrooms growing in the wild (left) and within controlled conditions (right).
Reishi mushrooms growing in the wild (left) and within controlled conditions (right).

Mushrooms

Companies around the world are already researching the uses of fungi. MycoWorks, a San Francisco-based company, was at one time working on using mycelium, fungi roots, to create low-cost bricks that could be used for low-cost construction. However, at the time, a foot of mycelia material was $50. While the implications for such low-cost construction materials to help provide a solution to social and financial problems in developing countries can’t be ignored, more research needs to be done to find a cost-efficient solution. Currently, MycoWorks is using mycelium to create faux-leather. If you want to learn more about MycoWorks and its technology, visit the company’s website here.

It’s possible that one day we will be able to drastically reduce our carbon footprint and create cost-effective building materials from fungi for the general population, but it must wait for fungi-related research to grow. However, while working to save the planet, there are always fun and exciting discoveries made along the way. To learn more about how mushrooms can be used in creative ways, check out our story A Helmet Made of Mushroom Fiber?


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