Alternative uses of Fungi

We all know mushrooms and although not everyone likes to eat them, everyone recognises a common mushroom in the grocery store or the forest. At least a very limited number of mushrooms and here we need to explain a little bit about these ancient organisms.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi like the apples of trees and mushrooms are built (from the same material, called hyphae, as the fungi itself) to produce spores (seeds) in order to disperse themselves. However, according to Merlin Sheldrake: “ the overwhelming majority of fungal species release spores without producing mushrooms”. Hyphae grows and creates a network, called mycelium that we could imagine as the nervous system of fungi. This network transfers enzymes, nutrition, water, can even conduct waves of electricity and has many functions. If you want to learn more about the wonderful world of fungi, we highly recommend reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake as he is not just extremely knowledgeable but his book is easy to read and entertaining.

In this InSight, however, we want to focus on the various uses of fungi in different aspects of human life. Here are some common and innovative uses of them:

  1. Food Production:
    • Edible Mushrooms: Many fungi, such as Agaricus bisporus (common button mushroom), Shiitake, and Oyster mushrooms, are cultivated for human consumption.
    • Fermented Foods: Fungi like yeast and molds are used in the fermentation process for producing food items like bread, beer, wine, soy sauce, and cheese.
    • Mycelium for protein alternative: Fungi contain protein which makes them an excellent alternative for meat. Startups like Infinite Roots or Ecovative are working on creating sustainable, eco-friendly ways to produce food.
  1. Medicine:
    • Antibiotics: Penicillin, the first antibiotic discovered, is derived from the fungus Penicillium. Other antibiotics, such as cephalosporins, are also produced by fungi.
    • Immunosuppressants: Cyclosporine, used in organ transplant procedures, is produced by the fungus Tolypocladium inflatum.
    • Medicinal mushrooms: Cordyceps, Reishi, Chaga, Lion’s Mane, and Turkey Tail, among others, have been used for millennia by traditional medicine as all have beneficial, medicinal effects that are getting noticed even by modern medical personnel. Therefore, there are more and more medical trials on their positive effects on the immune system, cardiovascular system and on the brain.
    • AstroPharmacy: Dr Lynn Rotschild has been a pioneer for using fungi for the space industry. Her latest project is AstroPharmacy, for which she is using fungi to produce personalised medicine on-the-go that would resolve the issue of expiration and radiation damage.
  1. Biological Control:
    • Some fungi are used as biological control agents to manage pests and diseases in agriculture, horticulture, and forestry. For example, the fungus Beauveria bassiana is used to control insect pests.
  1. Bioremediation:
    • Certain fungi can absorb and concentrate heavy metals from their environment. This property is utilized in bioremediation processes to clean up polluted environments.
  1. Research and Education:
    • Fungi, particularly yeast, are essential model organisms in genetic and molecular biology research.
    • Fungi have been part of our ecosystem for almost a billion years, had helped plants to develop and spread over the planet, and to this day they help flora and fauna to fend off diseases and provide nutrition to them. We still know very little about fungi.
    • They are used in educational settings to teach concepts such as genetics, reproduction, and ecological interactions.
  1. Textile Industry:
    • Fungi, particularly species of Trichoderma, are used in the textile industry for the softening and finishing of fabrics.
    • Mycelium is also being used to create leather-like material and sustainable textile. Just to mention a couple of startups working on that: Officina Corpuscoli, Mylium and the previously mentioned Ecovative.
  1. Enzyme Production:
    • Fungi produce enzymes that are used in various industrial processes, such as amylases for starch processing and cellulases for biofuel production. Check out Anthology.
  1. Waste Decomposition:
    • Fungi play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter, aiding in the decomposition of dead plant and animal material.
    • Fungi can also aid in recycling waste into usable materials and even rocket fuel. Argento Labs and MycoMine are both working on that.
  1. Sustainable Packaging:
    • Mycelium can be an excellent alternative to styrofoam. It is sustainable, eco-friendly, non-pollutant, bio-digestable and you can be certain that no micro-plastic ends up in your food. Magical Mushroom and SMUSH Materials are both experts in the field. 
  1. Mycoremediation: 
    • Certain fungi are employed in mycoremediation to clean up environmental pollutants, including oil spills and pesticide residues.
    • MycoMine is also working on how to help remedy our environmental impact using fungi.
  1. Biotechnology:
    • Fungi are used in the production of various enzymes, vitamins, and organic acids in industrial biotechnology processes.
    • Construction: from building blocks to heat and/or acoustic insulation, there is nothing mycelium can’t do. Fungi can also act as air-conditioning as they can maintain cooler air around them. Monika Brandić Lipińska, among others, is working on creating building blocks and architectural structures using mycelium.
    • Space industry: fungi have multi-purpose uses within the space industry, the obvious benefits like the previously mentioned protein source, waste recycling, building materials, and mining capabilities, fungi can also protect the crew against radiation, help grow crops and be used as batteries.
  1. Energy storage:
    • Fungi can be used to store energy and the Future is Fungi Award winner, Jens Laurids Sørensen works on making batteries.
  1. Art and Craft:
    • Some fungi, like certain species of molds, are used in traditional crafts such as papermaking and the production of natural dyes.
    • The Shaggy Ink Cap mushroom, as it’s name suggest, turns into black ink after a couple of days it has been picked.
  1. Ecological Role:
    • Fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants (mycorrhizae), aiding in nutrient absorption, and contributing to the overall health of ecosystems.

Understanding and harnessing the diverse capabilities of fungi continue to be areas of active research and development across multiple fields.

Astro SpArch intends to find ways for fungi to be used within the space industry. The above list includes several that could be utilized, like:

  • Mining, to extract minerals from rocks.
  • Growing crops, once regolith is turned into fertile soil with the help of fungi.
  • ISRU, fungi used as an additive material to create building blocks.
  • Radiation shielding.
  • Food source, as fungi is high in protein.
  • Recycling, using fungi to consume and transform garbage.