For the last year and a half since I read The Noma Guide to Fermentation, I have become increasingly interested in the fungal kingdom. I recently wrote a review of a good overview guide, but today I wanted to get a little more hands-on. Specifically, how fungi are being investigated for their ability to create novel ecological materials and have you can grow these materials yourself at home.
What is ‘mycelium’?
What we traditionally think of as ‘mushrooms’ is only a small part of the organism. Specifically, is the sexual fruiting body produced to release spores and produce the next generation. In this vein, it is frequently described as analogous to the apple of an apple tree. But the vast majority of the organism lives in the soil as ‘mycelium’, an intermingling network of thin filaments known as hyphae. While analogous to the ‘root structure’ of plants, it is actually far more than that as it is involved in nutrient digestion and absorption, environmental detection, interaction with other species, and basically all of the functions that aren’t in the fruiting body (which is itself made of hyphal filaments).
I’m sure I’ll return to dive further down this rabbit hole another time, but suffice it to know that several companies are looking to use the mycelium’s ability to bind together the substrate in which it is growing to create novel materials. The most established of these is Ecovative Design, an Upstate New York start-up creating replacements for styrofoam and other traditionally petroleum-derived products. Even NASA is looking at how mycelium may be able to bind Martian soil (regolith) into bricks for construction on Mars.
Last fall, while playing around with a fungus from the Ganoderma genus, I made a lamp out of mycelium, spent coffee grains, and the remains of some tomato plants I had previously cultivated in my apartment.
Recently, I wanted to dip back into those waters to grow a lampshade and document a little more of the process.
A couple years ago, Gwenn and I made a lamp out of random PVC pieces, some concrete, and paint.
While I like the look of it, I thought it might be better in its current home if I reflected more of the light against the wall. I had previously seen others online that had made lampshades using mycelium, so I thought I was a good excuse to give it a shot.
The first step was to create grain spawn. This is first step in growing any gourmet or medicinal mushrooms, in which the mycelium is rapidly expanded in a sterilized grain substrate.
Once the grain has been fully colonized, it can be mixed with the bulk substrate and grown in a mold. Here, I used pasteurized straw (purchased in the pet section of the grocery store for rabbits), spent coffee grains, and the brown rice grain spawn. For the mold, I used two kitchen bowls with a small clay cheese mold to separate the two and create a hole for the bulb.
After thoroughly sanitizing everything with isopropyl alcohol, I mixed the substrate together, formed it between the two bowls, and waited about a week. When I removed the bowls, the mycelium had almost fully colonized the whole thing.
I then let it grow for another week to fill in a few spots, baked it at ~80°C in my little oven to dry it out and inactivate the fungus, and voilà !
All in all, I’m pretty happy with the results and have ideas for some future mycelium-based projects.
How can I do this?
So, let’s say you want to make your own mycomaterials, but not fully commit to finding strains, investing in a pressure cooker, etc. Good news! The aforementioned Ecovative Design actually has an offshoot called Grow.Bio where you can buy kits to make your own mycelium-based bricks, planters, or even teddy bears. As the pandemic has gone on, people have transitioned from sourdough to growing mushrooms, so maybe fungal materials are the next logical step. I’d love to know if you end up making something and, as they say in the fungal community, ‘Mush Love’.