To the moon, Alice: Mushrooms go where few men have gone before09/01/2023 03:05PM ● By Lori Harrison, VP Communications for American Mushroom
When Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden would chafe ‘To the Moon, Alice,’ at his wife played by Audrey Meadows on “The Honeymooners”, he wasn’t talking about mushrooms, but nearly 70 years later, NASA’s Ames Research Center has embarked on the Myco-Architecture Project, which is prototyping technologies that could ‘grow’ habitats on the moon, Mars, and beyond out of mushrooms, and specifically mycelium.
What makes mycelium so attractive to NASA researchers is its ability to be used “dry, wet, frozen with water or as part of a self-produced composite which would allow such enhancements as radiation protection and a vapor seal.”
The interest in mushroom mycelium is not new. In 2014, Ames Research Center students designed a drone made from mycelium. With the guidance and materials from Evocative Design, a custom drone-shaped skeleton was grown. The benefits of a biodegradable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) goes beyond the combat zone, but to monitor environmentally sensitive areas and other scientific purposes. If the drone goes down, the organic material is environmentally-safe and friendly. While the drone was not 100 percent mycelium or biodegradable (it still used a traditional rotor, battery, and controls), scientists continue to work to adopt a 100% UAV.
Sure, the idea of using mushrooms in space, is well, out of this world. But mushroom mycelium offers a lot of advantages. Right now, humans heading into space are like turtles: they carry their own habitat with them. Sure, it’s efficient, but it takes up a lot of energy. So, what if you could build habitats on the moon?
According to the NASA website, “On Earth, a flexible plastic shell produced to the final habitat dimensions would be seeded with mycelia and dried feedstock and the outside sterilized. At destination, the shell could be configured to its final inner dimensions with struts. The mycelial and feedstock material would be moistened with Martian or terrestrial water depending on mass trade-offs, and heated, initiating fungal (and living feedstock) growth. Mycelial growth will cease when feedstock is consumed, heat withdrawn or the mycelia heat killed. If additions or repairs to the structures are needed, water, heat and feedstock can be added to reactivate growth of the dormant fungi.”
The project is in its infancy, so, as they say, there’s more on the horizon.
And while NASA researchers are looking at what mushrooms can do in space, a little closer to home, computer scientists are trying to see if mushrooms can carry computing and sensing functions; in other words, can mushrooms be an element of a computer motherboard?
Researchers in England believe computers of the coming century will be made of chemical or living systems—or wetware—to work in harmony with hardware and software.
Not surprising, what makes mushrooms so appealing in these studies is the mycelium. The research shows that mycelium acts as conductors as well as the electronic components of a computer; mycelium can receive and send electric signals, as well as retain memory.
That makes sense, sort of.
Mushrooms stay connected with the environment and the organisms around them using a kind of “internet” communication. Some refer to this as the ‘wood wide web.’ And some researchers believe that by deciphering the language fungi use to send signals through this biological network, scientists might be able to not only get insights about the state of underground ecosystems, and also tap into them to improve our own information systems.
Mushroom computers could offer some benefits over conventional computers. Although they can’t ever match the speeds of today’s modern machines, they could be more fault tolerant (they can self-regenerate), reconfigurable (they naturally grow and evolve), and consume very little energy.
Researchers explain it this way: the classical computers today see problems as binaries: the ones and zeros that represent the traditional approach these devices use. However, most dynamics in the real world cannot always be captured through that system. This is the reason why researchers are working on technologies like quantum computers (which could better simulate molecules) and living brain cell-based chips (which could better mimic neural networks), because they can represent and process information in different ways, utilizing a series of complex, multi-dimensional functions, and provide more precise calculations for certain problems.
We don’t have to cue the mushroom robots just yet. For now, all of this is just exciting and interesting research. One day, who knows…maybe we’ll use our mushroom computer to book a trip to the moon on a mycelium drone.
American Mushroom, headquartered in Avondale, is a national voluntary trade association representing the growers, processors, and marketers of cultivated mushrooms across the United States and industry suppliers worldwide. For more information, visit www.americanmushroom.org.