Fungi makes up the fifth and least-explored family of life on Earth. The mushroom mystery only deepens when we look beneath the surface and into the mycelium.
This vast network of thread-like roots stretches under the ground and aids organic processes. According to recent findings, it might also assist humans in building a more sustainable future.
Today, we look into seven revolutionary applications of underground fungi. But first, what is mycelium?
What Is Mycelium?
Mycelium is a part of the fungi kingdom. It’s the collective name for a network of tiny threads, called hyphae, from which mushrooms grow. Not all mycelia produce the fruiting bodies of edibles and psychedelics, but all mushrooms emerge from this network.
Producing the fruiting body is the least of the mycelium’s purposes. Prevalent in fields and wooded areas, it secretes enzymes to break down organic matter and support the ecosystem.
Mushroom mycelium is a diverse domain. We currently know of over 14 thousand species, some microscopic and some spanning thousands of acres.
How to grow mycelium? This structure develops in moist and warm environments. It emerges from fungal spores germinating in soil and feeding off nearby organic matter.
This approach is valuable for gardeners looking to boost the sustainability of their land plots. They’re not the only ones who benefit from cultivating it, though.
Their dense root-like structure and composting properties piqued innovators’ interests. Here are the seven ways mycelium already provides for humans.
Biofertilizers for Soil
Mushroom mycelium forms symbiotic relationships with neighboring plants. The two ‘root’ types merge for mutual benefit.
The hyphae reach farther than plant roots, drawing food closer to trees, wheat crops, and flower beds. This process helps the vegetation survive in soils with scarce nutrients. In return, the plant performs photosynthesis and feeds the fungi with sugar, and both life forms get denser.
This type of fertilization may resolve food insecurities. Multiple countries’ bio-economic policies now include it in their farming programs.
Breaking Down Plastic
Plastic items decompose at slow rates, causing excessive pollution. To address this crisis, scientists turn to mycoremediation.
This strategy involves fungi enzymes breaking down pollutants in the environment. We already know of over 90 species of bacteria and fungi capable of degrading plastic. Some do so in mere months.
European researchers have since proposed at-home systems for breaking down plastics using Oyster mushrooms. Their mycelium would break down the trash and feed on its contents, letting homeowners compost waste in their gardens.
Cleaning Up Toxins
Mushroom mycelium predominantly develops on organic matter, but its enzymes can also feed on some artificial materials. As a result, fungi might clean up oil spills, chemical contamination, and wildfire consequences on a large scale.
Fungi absorb most toxins, but not mercury and arsenic. In these cases, the fruiting body soaks the material, and humans enter the site for safe removal.
California officials tested this idea twice. In 2007, they used mushrooms to remove around 60 thousand gallons of oil from San Francisco Bay. In 2017, they employed fungi to clean up a chemical spill after several wildfires.
Green Building Materials
The construction industry is a significant energy spender, relying on fossil fuels for producing materials. It now appears fungi might supplement some of these energy-hungry processes.
Growing mushroom mycelium on agricultural waste generates a low-cost and green building material. The idea first hit the headlines in 2014 with Hy-Fi, a compostable New York tower. The designer used fungal bricks to build it and proved the viability of this material.
Another option is to ‘recycle’ old homes by combining their demolished remains with mycelium. This technique enables lower-cost buildings to combat the housing crisis.
Leather and synthetic textiles lead to a considerable carbon footprint in the fashion industry. Recently, a mycelium-based material Mylo emerged to replace both livestock and polyester.
Mylo consists of common edible mushrooms and takes weeks to produce. Manufacturers feed spores with organic material and spread them on mats. They grow into a foam-like substance to be processed, tanned, and fashioned into clothing items and accessories.
Gucci and Adidas are already offering Mylo lines.
Styrofoam is convenient for packaging but awful for the environment. Once it enters natural habitats, it breaks down into tiny pieces, harming the waterways and wildlife.
Mushroom mycelium might be the biodegradable alternative to this harmful process.
Manufacturers produce custom packaging by combining mycelium with agricultural products like hemp, oat hulls, and wood chips. The fungus feeds on the organic matter and fills the holes, and drying kills excess spores. The result is a firm, water-resistant box you can compost at home.
Magnates like IKEA are already replacing their usual boxing with this bio alternative.
Vegan Meat Alternatives
Mushrooms have long stood as a plant-based alternative to meat. Replacing every burger patty with a giant portobello gets bland, though. Now mycelium proteins might create more satisfying protein sources.
Mycoproteins emerge after specific fungi spores go through fermentation. The result is a flavorless high-protein fiber with a muscle-like texture, perfect for producing meat substitutes.
Mycelium bacon and other meats have already hit the market, offering a tastier proxy than soy and lentils.
Mycelium: Mysterious and Magnificent
Replacing and decomposing plastics, reducing fossil fuel usage, cutting the need for animal products—is there something mushroom mycelium can’t do? It seems to hold the answer to many of humanity’s issues. Green future might just be fungal.
Appreciating the mycelium marvel on a large scale only makes us more excited about looking into the fungal microcosm. If you feel the same, hop to our shop for lab-grade spore syringes and embark on your amateur microscopy adventure.