Why scientists are rooting for mushrooms

Mushrooms are the organisms that keep on giving. They grow and feed the soil by breaking down organic matter. For centuries, they’ve also been a staple in our diet. 

Recently, people have started taking a closer look at mushrooms, and more specifically, mycelium — the hidden root of mushrooms — as an engineering material to produce goods like surfboardspackaging materialsfurniture and even architecture.

As far as natural materials go, there’s never been anything as versatile and cost-effective as fungi, says Sonia Travaglini, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, who is collaborating with artist and mycologist Philip Ross to unlock the seemingly infinite potential of fungi.

Mycelium can grow into any shape or size (the largest in the world blankets an entire forest in Oregon). They can be engineered to be as hard and strong as wood or brick, as soft and squishy as foam, or even smooth and flexible, like fabric. 

Unlike other natural materials, mushrooms can rely on their recycling properties to break down organic matter so you can grow a lot of it very quickly and cheaply just by feeding it biodegradable waste. In as little as two weeks, you can cultivate a hunk of mushroom that’s brick-sized.

That mycelium actually takes in waste and carbon dioxide as it grows (one species of fungi even eats plastic trash) instead of expelling byproducts makes it far superior to other forms of production.

Plus, when you’re done with mushroom, you can compost it or break up the material to grow more mycelium from it.

“And, unlike forming synthetic materials, which have to be made while very hot or under pressure, all of which takes a lot of energy to create those conditions, mycology materials grow from mushrooms which grow in our normal habitat, so it’s much less energy-intensive,” said Travaglini.

In the lab, Travaglini and other researchers crush, compress, stretch, pull and bend mycelium to test the amount of force the material can tolerate.   

They found that mycelium is incredibly strong and can withstand a lot of compression and tension.

Most materials are only strong from one direction. But mycology materials are tough from all directions and can absorb a lot force without breaking. So it can withstand as much weight as a brick, but won’t shatter when you drop it or when it experiences a hard impact, said Travaglini. 

As one of the newer organisms receiving an application in biomimetics, a field of science that looks to imitate nature’s instinctive designs to find sustainable solutions and innovation, we might be getting merely a glimpse of what fungi is capable of.

“Mycology is still a whole new field of research, we’re still finding more questions and still really don’t know where it’s going to go, which makes it really exciting,” said Travaglini.

Image sources: Vice UK/Mazda & Pearson Prentice Hall