Fungi were the first organisms that existed on our planet, with plants following after a long period of 700 million years.
Historically mushrooms have been revered by ancient cultures possessing mystical properties. Many cultures in Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America believed that mushrooms could produce super-human strength. The common understanding that mushrooms are powerful beings throughout history is still relevant in our very own culture and society today. Mushrooms are an abundant fungus which are being considered within the design industry as furniture, architecture, textiles and packaging to name a few. They have the power to clean up pollutants and are being used to clean waterways, soil and in some areas, even radioactive waste.
Fungi can grow in all types of landscapes and hold the soil together which can be up to 30,000 times its mass. This strength carries forward to produce strong antibiotics for human consumption. Some preliminary studies on mushrooms have also demonstrated that they may be able to provide us with anti-cancer chemotherapeutic agents, immunomodulators too. Giving humans the tools for vitality from the ever-abundant nature‚Äôs pharmacy.
Paul Stamets, the most influential leader in the subject of all things mushrooms, states that: ‚ÄòWe are more closely related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom. Humans and fungi share the same pathogens. Fungi don’t like to rot from bacteria so our best antibiotics come from fungi‚Äô.
An extension of mushrooms, when in culture, is called a mycelium, which is the vegetative part of the fungus consisting of branches or a thread-like hyphae construction that are found on soil and many other substrates. Mycelium grows outwards looking for water and nutrients such as nitrogen, carbon, potassium and phosphorus which feeds the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) and produces a biomass enabling the mycelium to continually grow and conquer its territory, inhaling oxygen as us humans do.
Mycelium can be described as nature‚Äôs answer to the World Wide Web, providing us with all of the answers to our very own salvation. Products that have been created from this wondrous material have been Jonas Edvard‚Äôs¬†MYX lamps which consist of a plant fibre and mushroom mycelium. The lamp is grown into shape during a period of 2-3 weeks, where the mushroom mycelium grows together with the plant fibres into a flexible and soft living textile. After 2 weeks the harvesting begins into healthy oyster mushrooms. The waste product ‚Äòshaped as a lamp‚Äô can then be dried and used as a lightweight material, that is both organic, compostable and sustainable.
The mushroom mycelium stabilises the construction by physically growing together the material behaving as a glue between the fibres. The mushroom organism comes from a commercial mushroom farm and the plant fibres are a leftover material from the textile industry, making MYX an optimised end-waste product generating a nutritious food product during the growing cycle.
Styrofoam takes thousands of years to decompose whereas mushroom mycelium packaging will decompose naturally in the garden over a matter of weeks, turning the once considered waste product into a resource. IKEA have partnered with the leading biomaterials company Ecovative to replace the extremely harmful styrofoam with Myco Foam, a mushroom based packaging which offers the retail furniture giant an eco-friendly alternative to their vast styrofoam consumption.
Diverting the natural carbon cycle using organic matter, biological technologies and advanced computer-based engineering has enabled David Benjamin of architecture practice The Living, to construct a circular tower manufactured from 10,000 compostable bricks made from a combination of discarded corn stalks and mycelium. This particular method produced zero carbon emissions as it required zero energy to complete. Making this a great example of what mushrooms can create when applied in the right environment and situation.
Phil Ross‚Äô Yamanaka Containers are named after Shigeru Yamanaka, the Japanese scientist who described how fungal cells can function as a natural binding agent for a range of other materials. Each container is made of Reishi mushroom, which Phil cultivated inside a lab and nurtured until the mushroom grew inside of custom-made molds. Consumed by many to enhance the immune system, Reishi mushrooms in container-form will surely enhance the look of your house plants.
Various projects and researchers across the world use mycelium to clean habitats. Whether it is waterways, soil or even radioactive contaminated areas, the powerful use of mycelium to sequester contaminants is another amazing feat of nature. Audrey Speyer‚Äôs Purifungi research project is a completely biodegradable first aid kit that can be deployed in such areas by anyone wishing to remove toxic waste and return the earth to full health. Co-working with nature offers alternatives to designing new systems and materials that are able to remove chemicals such as diesel, petroleum, chemical warfare, pesticides, chemical textile dyes and petrochemicals.
If mushrooms can enhance our environment, living situation, packaging and furniture what else does this compelling organism have to offer us in our future?
Mycoremediation is a mode of bioremediation which is the process of using mushrooms to separate or diminish contaminants from the environment. Thus stimulating microbial and enzyme activity which in turn reduces toxins. In 2007 oil had contaminated the shoreline in San Francisco after a cargo ship spilled 58,000 gallons of fuel oil. An experiment of layered oyster mushrooms and straw broke down the oil after a few weeks resulting in the soil being clean enough to be used for roadside landscaping. This concept stemmed from the film Nausica√§ of the Valley of the Wind in which vast fungal forests rehabilitated the planet after a disastrous human contaminating devastation.
According to Paul Stamets, the future of mycoremediation lies in Mycological Response Teams. These teams would consist of knowledgeable and trained people who would set up centres that would use mycoremediation techniques to recycle and rebuild healthy soil in the area. This begins by spreading awareness and information with regards to the benefits of mycoremediation.
The humble portobello mushroom usually great on a burger is now being transformed into a future energy source which could power our smartphones to our cars. The current industry standard uses lithium-ion batteries which consist of a synthetic graphite, which comes at a high cost of manufacturing because it requires tedious purification and preparation processes that are also harmful to the environment. However, researchers from the University of California have recently discovered that the portobello mushroom could be the biodegradable answer to our increasing demand for electric vehicles and products in the future.
The molecular structure of the mushroom is strong enough to store energy whilst being porous enough to enable efficient energy transfer. The high potassium salt concentration in mushrooms allows for increased electrolyte-active material over time by activating more pores, gradually increasing its capacity.
Using biomass, a biological material from living organisms, as a replacement for graphite would increase the lifespan of our portable devices, especially taking into account that electrical products are now designed with obsolescence in mind.
Could our future be mushroom mycelium? Can mushrooms redeem us from the damage we as humans have left on our planet?
‚ÄúMushroom mycelium represents regrowth, rejuvenation, regeneration. Fungi generates soil that gives life. The task we have today is to understand the language of nature. I believe nature is intelligent. The fact that we lack the language skills to communicate with nature does not impune that nature is intelligent, it speaks to our inadequacies for communication. If we don‚Äôt get our act together and understand the organisms that sustain us today not only will we destroy those organisms we will destroy ourselves.‚Äù -¬†Paul Stamets
By Seetal Solanki of Ma-tt-er
Ma-tt-er is a research studio, platform and consultancy that explores the past, present and future potentials of materials.
Photography by Alix-Rose Cowie