Getting to the Root of It09/01/2023 02:38PM ● By Lori Harrison, VP Communications for American Mushroom
Unlike other fresh food, mycelium provides an afterlife for mushrooms, and it's showing up outside the produce aisle.
Something's brewing beneath the surface. The network of branches and the threadlike vegetable part of the mushroom known as mycelium is giving way to a rising new sustainable material. It boasts a plethora of attractive attributes and in the quest for green alternatives, emerging trends, and potentially the next big thing, apparel, home decor, packaging, and biofabrication industries are just a few of those taking note and jumping on the bandwagon.
Like the mushroom itself, mycelium's vast, dense network of fibers can easily be manufactured, manipulated, and quickly reproduced; it is biodegradable, yet super strong and durable, water and mold-resistant and 100% organic. Mycelium is self-binding and flame resistant, eliminating the need for toxic glues and flame-retardant chemicals. Created without petrochemicals, mycelium materials are completely compostable. Relative to its weight, it is also stronger pound for pound than concrete. Expert mycologists tout mushrooms and its mycelium underbelly as possibly the best thing we can do to save the environment.
The Evolution of Mycelium
Mycologist Phillip Ross began experimenting with fungi and mycelium nearly 25 years ago. What started simply with an interest in growing mushrooms, he soon learned their growing tendencies and wanted to work with them as an art material. He introduced mushroom tissue into molds filled with pasteurized sawdust and allowed the fungus to digest the material. With the material he tested out lounge chairs and side tables; and in 2009, a tipping-point moment; at a contemporary art museum in Düsseldorf, Germany, Ross built a small teahouse from interlocking Reishi mushroom bricks. (He also boiled the bricks into tea for gallery visitors to drink). The bricks were so strong, many of Ross' woodworking tools broke. It was then, Ross saw the potential of mycelium. As he began to refine his process, others approached him about growing the material for industrial use. Ross has since co-founded MycoWorks, a company dedicated to “mycotecture,” custom-engineered material, completely animal-free.
HIs early studies took place during the pre-internet days. He leaned on trial and error, clubs and books, including those of mycologist Paul Stamets. An author and proponent of medicinal fungi and mycoremediation, in 2005 Stamets published Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. The book serves as a guide to the four areas of "mycorestoration," breaking down mycelium's digestive power and how it decomposes toxic wastes and pollutants and more.
This network of roots packs a powerful punch. There are several reasons why a variety of industries are looking at mycelium.
Sustainability: Mycelium is considered an eco-friendly and sustainable material. It can be grown using agricultural waste or other organic substrates, reducing reliance on non-renewable resources. Additionally, mycelium-based products are biodegradable, minimizing environmental impact and waste accumulation.
Versatility: Mycelium offers tremendous versatility in terms of its applications. It can be grown into various shapes, sizes, and textures, making it suitable for a wide range of industries and products.
Rapid Growth: Mycelium exhibits rapid growth rates, sometimes doubling in size within a day. This quick growth allows for efficient production and shorter manufacturing cycles compared to traditional materials, making it an attractive option for industries seeking cost-effective solutions.
Customizability: Mycelium can be easily manipulated during the growth process. By adjusting growth conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and nutrient composition, it is possible to achieve specific material properties and desired characteristics, tailoring the end product to meet industry requirements.
Strength and Durability: Despite its lightweight nature, mycelium possesses impressive structural strength. It can be engineered to enhance its durability and load-bearing capabilities, making it suitable for various applications, including those requiring robust materials.
Health and Safety: Mycelium is generally non-toxic and poses minimal health risks to humans during cultivation and handling. This makes it an appealing choice for industries concerned with occupational health and safety standards.
Innovative Design Possibilities: Mycelium's unique growth patterns and aesthetic appeal open up opportunities for innovative and visually striking designs. Its organic and natural appearance adds an element of uniqueness to products, appealing to consumers who prioritize sustainability and distinctive aesthetics.
Circular Economy: The use of mycelium aligns with the principles of a circular economy, as it can be integrated into waste management systems. By utilizing agricultural or industrial byproducts as growth substrates, mycelium helps reduce waste and contributes to a more sustainable production cycle.
Mycelium based products are showing up in a variety of areas. Below is a fraction of the mycelium research, experimentation and innovation:
New York-based Ecovative Design developed Mushroom® Packaging in 2007. Made from mycelium and agricultural waste sourced from regional farmers, in a matter of days mushroom products are ready to use. For Ecovative, the ‘why’ behind their innovation is simple -- to grow materials that replace plastics and reduce animal slaughter. Plastics, and specifically single-use plastics are a leading cause of pollution, and according to the company, animal agriculture is the leading cause of global warming.
Bolt Threads, which launched nearly a decade ago, is best known for creating Microsilk, a polymer bioengineered to mimic spider silk. From there, they developed Mylo–a leather-like material made from mycelium. The company has partnered with fashion designer Stella McCartney, which created a handbag for display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Lulu Lemon, that launched the world's first yoga accessories in 2021.
MycoWorks' leather-like material is grown through a closed-loop process with a low energy conversion rate that uses minimal water. The biodegradable material can be grown in nearly any size or texture, unlike conventional leather sourced from animal hides. MycoWorks' material is also water resistant, and it comes in a variety of finishes. The company is producing sheet stock of the material and is working with designers and manufacturers to prototype products and application.
Jae Rhim Lee is a South Korean artist whose work encompasses art, science, and culture. An MIT graduate, she studied mycoremediation and visited a green cemetery, which eventually to the idea that fashion, in addition to mushrooms, could be a vehicle for re-imagining one's relationship with death. She conceptualized the Infinity Mushroom Suit, a self-recycling organic cotton suit infused with a bio mix of mushroom mycelium and other microorganisms that are supposed to aid in decomposition, work to neutralize toxins found in the body, and transfer nutrients to plant life, so that the remains of the person lost end up helping create new life. The burial suit was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year, when it was announced that 1990s heartthrob Luke Perry, who died suddenly of a stroke, requested to be buried in the Infinity Suit.
Mogu is a company that specializes in mycelium-based materials for interior design and architecture. They offer a range of products, including mycelium-based acoustic panels, wall tiles, and insulation materials. Their solutions provide sustainable and aesthetically pleasing options for building and design projects.
With the goal to make sustainable design both accessible and attractive, biodesigner Danielle Trofe MushLume Lighting Collection utilizes hemp and mycelium. She grows lampshades that can return safely to the earth, adding nutrients back to the soil rather than pollutants. Available for individual purchase, her designs are also found in workplace, hospitality and retail including a canopy of mushroom lights at 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge and Blue Park Kitchen in NYC’s financial district.
bioMASON focuses on sustainable construction materials. They have developed a process that uses mycelium to grow biocement-based products. Their mycelium-based bricks offer an eco-friendly alternative to traditional concrete bricks, reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption in the construction industry.
Researchers at Stanford University have also investigated the use of mycelium as a sustainable construction material. They have studied the structural properties of mycelium and developed techniques for growing mycelium-based panels suitable for architectural applications.
Coined biodesign and biotechniques, the mycelium industry has far-reaching potential across more and more sectors.
Along with the industries cited above, mycelium is being in products in the grocery aisles as well. Plant-based ‘meat’ is not new: Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat and others are pioneering the segment. From health, to the rise in the world population growth, climate change, constraints on natural resources and animal welfare, groups around the world are looking at mycelium as a potential solution.
Mycelium-leaders Ecovative entered the market in September 2019 with Atlas Food Co., dedicated to the future of animal-free meat. The company’s CEO Eben Bayer told Forbes that from dense like steak to crispy like bacon, “mycelium potentially has the right structure to be used as a scaffolding for a variety of plant-based meats.” Atlas will partner with food companies and develop the best structures to replicate the texture and feel of whole cuts of meat such as steak and chicken, versus the ground product on the market today.
Talk about feeding a trend within a trend.