They are everywhere: in the air we breathe, the water we drink, within our bodies, and under our feet. Fungi are a crucial component of our lives, even when we can’t see them.
Between two and four million species of fungi exist on Earth, and more than 2,000 new species are discovered every year. The visible part of a fungus, however, is only a fraction of the organism. Vast networks of thin, thread-like roots called mycelium – which are crucial to the decomposition process of organic matter – stretch below the surface of every mushroom, and they might be the key to solving some of humanity’s largest problems. Recent innovations have been employing the power of mycelium to address plastic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental contamination, and mycologists are urging us to consider the important role it can play in building a more sustainable future.
When we order a package, the content – whether it be a new computer, dishware, or a piece of furniture – is likely encased in a thick layer of Styrofoam. This lightweight, petroleum-based polystyrene product breaks easily into small pieces that are very difficult to clean up once they enter natural environments, causing harm to waterways and the wildlife that ingest it. It’s estimated that Styrofoam takes up 30% of all landfill space, and takes over 500 years to break down.
Enter its biodegradable replacement: mushrooms.
In 2007, the New York-based company Ecovative unveiled a new packaging material made from mycelium. To create this natural Styrofoam alternative, mycelium is combined with other agricultural products like hemp, wood chips, cotton burrs, and oat hulls, then placed in a mold designed to fit a specific product. Over the course of a week, the mycelium grows and fills in the empty space in the mold. It is then heat-treated to dry out the product and kill the spores in order to keep the mycelium from growing. The resulting product is water resistant and can be composted at home, where it will break down in 45 days.
Major furniture and home goods retailer IKEA announced plans to transition to this packaging alternative, perhaps signaling a significant shift in how big-box stores will limit their use of plastic.
Breaking Down Plastic
About 300 million tons of plastic are generated every year, which is nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Estimates of the decomposition rate of plastic range from 450 years, to 1000 years, to never.
To address the plastic pollution crisis, scientists are turning to mycroremediation: the natural process by which fungi use their enzymes to break down environmental pollutants. So far, more than 90 genera of bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes have been proven to degrade plastic – some within mere months.
In 2011, a group Yale students on a trip to Ecuador found a mushroom (Pestalotiopsis microspore) in the Amazon that can grow on polyurethane with or without oxygen or light, using it as its sole carbon source. Further innovations have explored the possibility of breaking down plastic with fungi in our own homes. Researcher Katharina Unger of Utrecht University in the Netherlands has created the “Fungi Mutarium”: an at-home system where plastic can be placed in capsules with oyster mushrooms to be broken down and transformed into food. These innovations using Pestalotiopsis microspora and other plastic-degrading mushrooms might be the key to breaking down plastic in landfills, and lead us to a future without plastic pollution.
We might think of animal agriculture or gas-powered vehicles as the only drivers of climate change, but buildings and construction also have a major impact, comprising 39% of the world’s collective carbon footprint. Fast Company reports that 28% of this can be attributed to heating, cooling, and lighting, and the remaining 11% includes emissions associated with building materials and construction, with cement alone comprising 8% of all human emissions. To meaningfully address the climate crisis, we must confront our construction practices – and that’s where mushrooms come in.
Mycelium composites have become a viable option for replacing these wasteful, fossil fuel intensive building materials. Feeding on agricultural waste, hyphae – the branching, thread-like filaments that make up mycelium – grow as they digest nutrients from the waste and act as a natural binder as they are molded into bricks. The resulting low-density material is light, naturally flame-resistant, and insulating.
There are already many examples of construction using mycelium. In 2014, New York-based architectural firm The Living designed a structure made with organic bricks of mycelium and corn stalks in collaboration with Ecovative. This entirely-compostable tower won the Young Architects Program competition at MoMAPS1, a museum in Queens, New York.
The global population is expected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, and as it grows, so must food production.
Synthetic and chemical fertilizers are used in large-scale industrial farming to deliver nutrients to the soil and allow for more productive growth, but they are also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, environmental pollution, and the depletion of natural fungi and bacteria.
Instead of killing off the fungi in our soils with synthetic fertilizer, scientists are finding ways to use them to our advantage. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic – AKA mutually beneficial – relationships with plants by essentially extending their root systems and taking up nutrients like phosphate from the soil, effectively eliminating the need for phosphate fertilizers. Plants in tropical soils have an especially hard time obtaining phosphate and farmers spend a great deal of money on fertilizers. Scientists are exploring ways to bring these fungi to tropical regions by suspending them in gel and incorporating them into the soil.
Plant-Based Protein Alternatives
Grocery store shelves are exploding with plant-based alternatives to our favorite meat products – and among them are mushrooms. Instead of merely replacing a hamburger with a portobello mushroom, however, mycoproteins are being used to create more satisfying options.
Much like the fermentation process employed to make beer and bread, mycoproteins are created by fermenting the spores of specific mushrooms, resulting in a flavorless, high-protein foodstuff that can be used to make meat substitutes. Mycelium fibers have a texture similar to muscle, making them a fitting alternative. The company Quorn has been using mycoproteins for years to create their tasty plant-based meats, and many new and existing companies are following suit and creating their own versions, like Meati Foods and MyForest Foods, which makes mycelium-based bacon.
Cleaning Up Environmental Toxins
While we might only envision fungi growing on dead wood or other organic matter, their enzymes are also capable of breaking down some man-made compounds, and are now being employed to clean up oil spills and other environmental contamination through a process called mycoremediation.
Fungi secrete their enzymes to digest/break down the surface they’re growing on. When introduced to an area that has experienced wildfires, oil spills, or chemical contamination, the fungi can break down the molecules of dangerous compounds into smaller pieces, thereby reducing their toxicity. For elements that can’t be broken down – like mercury, arsenic, and cadmium – they become concentrated in the mushrooms, which can then be removed from the ecosystem.
Mushrooms were famously used to remove nearly 60,000 gallons of oil after the 2007 COSCO-Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, and were deployed to clean up household and industrial chemicals that had leeched into ecosystems and agricultural land after the California wildfires in Sonoma county in 2017.
A new fashion trend is emerging: wearable mushrooms.
Raising cattle for food and leather has an enormous environmental impact, and most vegan leather too is made of polyester: a non-biodegradable form of plastic. Companies are creating alternative forms of vegan leather with mycelium, and many popular brands are jumping on the trend.
Among them is Bolt Threads, a biotechnology company, which has created a mushroom-based material called Mylo that can be colored and manipulated into different textures to mimic traditional leather. The company has already partnered with Stella McCartney, Lululemon, Kering (the group that includes Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent), and Adidas, which is using the leather for their popular Stan Smith sneakers.