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

Mars will lose its largest moon, but gain a ring

Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, is slowly falling toward the planet, but rather than smash into the surface, it likely will be shredded and the pieces strewn about the planet in a ring like the rings encircling Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.

UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Benjamin Black and graduate student Tushar Mittal estimate the cohesiveness of Phobos and conclude that it is insufficient to resist the tidal forces that will pull it apart when it gets closer to Mars.

Mars tugs differently on different parts of Phobos. As Phobos gets closer to the planet, the tugs are enough to actually pull the moon apart, the scientists say. This is because Phobos is highly fractured, with lots of pores and rubble. “Dismembering it is analogous to pulling apart a granola bar”, Black said, “scattering crumbs and chunks everywhere.”

Read more about the fate of Phobos

| 8/2/16 | I woke up at 8 am this morning even though I don’t have class until 12:30 to get in a quick study sesh. Summer session is winding down to the last two weeks and it’s been intense and time consuming. BUT it’s so worth it knowing that at the end of next week, I will be done with the last prerequisite for biology and will officially be a Spanish Linguistics and Molecular and Cell Biology double major starting in the fall!!



You say hispanic, I say latino

Most use the words interchangeably these days, but the “hispanic” identity originated from an initiative in the 1970s to give Latin American’s in the United States a more unified voice in politics. UC Berkeley sociologist Cristina Mora talks about the positives and negatives of this distinction in her new book:

You have the person whose great-grandmother came from Argentina, but has never visited Latin America, and does not speak Spanish, lumped into the exact same category as a Guatemalan who just crossed the U.S. border.  One argument the book makes is that in order for all these government, market and political interests to come together, the category had to become broader in order to fit in all these ideas about Hispanics being consumers, or Hispanics being disadvantaged people.

Over time, the Hispanic identity has become based on cultural generalities such as ‘We all love our families. We are all religious and we all have some connection to the Spanish language however far back that may be.’  That’s a weakness and a strength. It was because of that ambiguity that we have the large numbers who identify as Hispanic and who have made advances.  But when you have such a broad and opaque category it’s hard to elicit and sustain passion and commitment.

Read more in her interview here 

Berkeley police respond to huge Southside riot
Thousands of revelers took to the streets around Channing Way and Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley's Southside...

So basically, last night 10/31/2015 a bunch of white college students, primarily from frats and sororities, threw a collective temper tantrum because their parties were shutdown. They threw rocks and bottles at cops and damaged property but nothing happened to them. Epitome of white privilege or what? #whiteprivilege #ucberkeley


Einstein’s Brain and the neuroscientist who studied it

Marian Diamond was the first female student in the anatomy at UC Berkeley.  It was 1948 and the first thing they asked her to do when she got there was sew a cover for a large magnifying machine.

“They didn’t know what to do with me because they weren’t used to having a woman. They thought I was there to get a husband. I was there to learn.“

Such challenges were not uncommon. Years later she requested tissue samples of Albert Einstein’s brain from a pathologist in Missouri. He didn’t trust her.

"He wasn’t sure that I was a scientist. This is one thing that you have to face being a woman.  He didn’t think that I should be the one to be looking at Einstein’s brain,” Diamond explained.

She persisted for three years, calling him once every six months, and received four blocks of the physicist’s brain tissue (about the size of a sugar cube).

Diamond’s research found that Einstein had twice as many glial cells as normal males —the discovery caused an international sensation as well as scientific criticism.

What are glial cells?  Previously, scientists believe that neurons were responsible for thinking and glial cells were support cells in the brain.  Now Researchers believe the glial cells play a critical role in brain development, learning, memory, aging and disease.

Want to learn more about human anatomy? Watch Marian Diamond’s popular course.


Empathy and compassion in the brain

Empathy is a complicated task for the brain.

Reptiles probably can’t do it and it’s going to occur in pretty simple forms for most mammals. But in humans, it really engages the frontal lobes: these newer regions of the brain that are involved in more complex symbolic processes like language, considering alternatives and imagining the future. Empathy requires that you think: there’s someone else out there who has feelings and thoughts that may be different from mine.  That’s a complicated cognitive achievement!

Compassion —the caring instinct— is located down in the center of the brain, near the top of the spinal cord where a lot of our basic instincts are regulated. It’s a very old part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, which is common to mammals when they take care of their young.

So that’s striking: there’s one kind of thing —empathy— that’s really about understanding people (very complicated!) in the frontal lobes. But caring is is really old in the nervous system.

Learn about the evolutionary roots of compassion & empathy in the video below:


9:30 am on the campus of UC Berkeley, three elegies hung at two locations on campus by an unknown party that is neither Cal’s Black Student Union nor an ally organization. As one of the founders has expressed, “And, you [still] ask why [we] protest?”

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