Mycelium Revolution

Innovation in science and engineering are leading to the discovery of many practical uses for mycelium. Eco-friendly industries are on the rise, and there has never been a greater need for replacements to single use plastics and materials that take centuries or longer to compost or break down. Mycelium is one organism that can be used to replace everyday household items that are made of plastic and reduce waste. The switch to biodegradable materials that revert to beneficial compost could mean that mushrooms are not only medicinal to us, but medicinal to our planet as well.

Here’s a little Mycology 101: every mushroom you know is the fruiting body of a much larger, often-invisible organism that lives in soil and decaying matter of almost every ecosystem on earth. These organisms are called mycelium, and consist of complex networks of thread-like structures, called hyphae. To reproduce, they create the fruiting body, called mushrooms, which drop spores that form more hyphae, which interconnect and branch out into larger and larger mycelial networks.

Mycelium has its own sort of intelligence - it responds to external stimuli, such as electricity, or nutrition. Therefore, it is possible to “train” mycelium for practical uses. For example, many textile companies are beginning to make leather alternatives by cultivating dense mats of mycelium on flat trays. Using beet sugar or repurposed industrial byproducts like sawdust, the mycelium is fed and encouraged to grow overlapping fibers, which can then be sliced, dehydrated, and dyed to create a product that is shockingly reminiscent of tanned animal hide. These trays can be stacked vertically, saving space, and the creation of a leather alternative has the potential to return thousands of acres of cattle grazing lands back into forestland. Fewer cattle also means less methane and carbon emissions, which is a major contributor to climate change. A reduction in the leather industry also eliminates the use of heavy metals and pollutants that enter watersheds as run-off from tanning practices. A local Emeryville company, Mycoworks, uses reishi mycelium to create myco-leather so glamorous, they are partnering with high end couture brands like Hermes to bring the vegan leather to high end fashion. We also saw an article article in April of 2021 in
Vogue titled: You Aren’t Tripping: Fungi Are Taking Over Fashion.

Phil Ross, the co-founder of Mycoworks, has also developed a way of shaping the growth of mycelium so that it is coaxed into growing into elegant shapes that can be used to create furniture. By adjusting the ratio of nutrients he feeds the mycelium, he can dial in his textures to be as hard as balsa wood, or as soft as cork. It can be formed into simple bricks to use as structural building materials, or into a complex shape like the frame of a chair. The mycelium-based furniture has a rustic mottled look, with colors ranging from eggshell to chestnut, and a slightly woodsy aroma. If Ross’ materials catch on, they could supplement lumber components in construction projects, and provide a faster-growing, more sustainable alternative to wood. Plus, Ross says, in a pinch, you could eat your house!

Ecovative, a New-York based biotech company, uses mycelium to grow packing materials, similar to a biological 3D printer. First, they create a custom mold, then they fill it with hemp hurds and mycelium. The mycelium feeds on the hemp, and grows over it in the shape of the mold. When it’s ready, the mold is popped off, and the formed mycelium is dehydrated and used as packaging for retail products such as perfumes, skin care products, candles, etc. This 100% biodegradable material composts in just 45 days, and can replace cardboard, plastic, and styrofoam, which can take decades to break down in the environment. In addition to their packing products, Ecovative uses mycelium to create a material they call MycoFlex, which is a foam padding alternative that can be used in anything from light weight interior padding for winter coats and gloves, to hard foam soles for high-performance footwear. Fans of Paul Staments are probably familiar with his famous mycelium hat -- who’s ready to one-up him by wearing mushroom athletic shoes?

The future of fungi and mycelium in our everyday life are only limited by our imagination. Mycelium has always been the bedrock of natural ecosystems, and as we necessitate a turn toward a less wasteful future, it makes sense that mycelium is a part of the sustainable way forward.