Updated: Oct 20
Biotechnology is a research area born of our species’ endeavour to overcome the mounting issues with our current methods of production and consumption. It is an area of science and technology that has discarded hubris and returned to a notion that used to be oh-so-familiar: nature is our greatest teacher. And to me, this reignition of our love affair with the Earth has yielded no development as exciting as the discovery and experimentation with one of the World’s most abundant resources: mycelium.
Fungal mycelium is a spindly network of hyphae – or, to the arts-inclined reader, the life-giving root of the mushroom. You’ve probably encountered it – especially any of you who have ever had the inclination to peek under a fallen log in your local woodlands or park – it looks like a cobweb or some cotton ball that got caught up at the bottom of your washbag.
It is estimated that there can be at least 200km of mycelium in a single kilogram of soil. The largest known network of mycelium is supposed to be around 2,200 years old and covers about ten square kilometres in eastern Oregon, USA. ‘Network’ is a key word in understanding the allusive magic of this fungal fortress: scientists have begun to refer to mycelium as “the Earth’s Internet” because of its ability to rapidly communicate throughout an incredibly intricate system of parts and points. In 2000, the results of an experiment conducted by Toshuyiki Nakagaki opened the possibility that this cellular organism may have some kind of intelligence. Nakagaki was able to prove that on a sterile petri dish, mycelium was able to grow towards a food source around any maze placed on top of it – avoiding dead ends and empty exits and always managing to find the most efficient route.
Paul Stamets has been one of the forerunners in this new-century revival of mushroom love. Stamets’ research highlights the regenerative power of the mushroom in human health, and the regenerative power of its spindly counterpart, mycelium, in plant health and biodiversity, which he termed “microrestoration”. Because of mycelium’s ability to break down, and therefore repurpose minerals and carbon, its presence in soil is the backbone of any ecosystem – if the soil is rich in mycelium, so too will the habitat be in biodiversity.
In the early 2000s Stamets claimed that fungi “are the interface organisms between life and death” because of the vital role they play in supporting life, and the subsequent role they have played in animal evolution. But fungi might again be life-saving in their use to counter current ecologically harmful methods of product production.
More recent discoveries in our experimentation with mushrooms have led us to the development of mycelium material: mycelium that is grown around a structure, resulting in a fixed shape. The first prototypes were mycelium bricks, which were strong enough to bounce back (literally) from forceful impact with a material as dense as concrete. They were also incredibly lightweight, and, as accidental observation proved, have amazing fire resistance.
But this was just the beginning – scientists can now produce mycelium materials that are soft or hard, light or heavy, strong and durable or weak and fracturing. MycoWorks has patented a particular ‘fine mycelium’ and has developed a leather-like material already making a mark on the fashion world. Their first product made with FineMycelium was in collaboration with Hermès. The potential of this new material really does seem endless – and its production is beneficial for all ecosystems and any life within them!
Mycology is still such a young science – there is so much we just don’t know about the fifth kingdom. Mushrooms are everywhere in culture – not just in their psychedelic ceremonious role in more traditional cultures, but in folklore, medicine and cuisine. Unfortunately, seventeenth and eighteenth-century Western culture associated mushrooms with death and decay – and they are yet to free themselves of the scepticism we culturally endowed them with. Mycologists are constantly having to justify the validity of mycology and laugh at the seeming nastiness, or even dangerousness, of mushrooms. But maybe, in the disillusioned and disconnected state of society today, we have something to learn from an organism so intricately interconnected; an organism that predates and will, of course, outlive us.
Illustration by Isabelle Holloway