Mushrooms aren’t just for stir-fry and psychedelic experiences anymore. Researchers are working on creating building materials, medicine, cleaning products, textiles, biofuels, packaging, and countless other products out of the fungi.
So what can’t mushrooms do?
“Mushrooms can’t play tennis,” says Tradd Cotter, mushroom researcher and cultivator for a company called Mushroom Mountain. “As far as their versatility in agriculture, medicine, and in the laboratory, there’s not much they can’t do.”
Mushroom Mountain focuses on growing, harvesting, selling, and researching mushrooms. The South Carolina-based company takes advantage of its proximity to Clemson University to collaborate on several research projects at the university, from medical to civil engineering, all involving mushroom science.
Here's a look at some of the emerging ways mushrooms are proving useful:
A few small structures have been made from mushroom-based building materials, and there are even companies that specialize in this “Mycotecture.” MycoWorks produces furniture and blocks, and Ecovative Design makes wall tiles, particleboard, a styrofoam substitute, and biodegradable packaging.
On the plus side, mushrooms grow quickly and create no carbon emissions or waste.
Phillip Ross, co-founder of MycoWorks, has a pending patent for “mycelium process engineering,” which he uses to make cheap, lightweight bricks. The blocks can then be used to make inexpensive but durable buildings. Mycelium is the threadlike, vegetative part of a mushroom, and the process of engineering involves using it as an adhesive.
Ecovative Design uses mycelium as a bonding agent to hold together wood particles for paneling, as well as for a durable, flame-retardant, and lightweight packaging.
Jennifer Ogle, a professor of civil engineering at Clemson University, is working on testing the mushroom-based building materials for strength, fire resistance, and insulation power.
According to research by Tamara McNealy, a professor of biology at Clemson, fungi could help doctors fight superbugs. When faced with a bacteria that’s resistant to current medications, she gives them to certain fungi, which then sweat out what she hopes can be a treatment specific to that pathogen.
However, not all mushroom meds are equal, says Cotter, who says he is skeptical of some mushroom-derived products on the market today. Various products are said to be good for immune support, stress relief, increased energy, and more. But the hot-water extraction technique sometimes in use would probably remove the restorative properties of the mushroom, rending the medicine ineffective, warns Cotter.
It's a reminder that rigorous testing is required before fungus-based products can move from the lab to store shelves.
Although there may be a number of surprising benefits from mushrooms, getting products to market is likely to take time and research. This field even has a name: bioprospecting.
“We're panning for something, and it may take time,” says Cotter. “Once in a while you find a little golden nugget in the stream. But most of the time you’re just panning away.”
Sue Van Hook, a mycological consultant for Ecovative Design, says mushrooms have incredible potential. “My experience as a mycologist is that I just go out into the woods and I ask who wants to play,” she says.
Cotter has similar sentiments toward mushrooms, calling them “patient” and “wise.”
“Whether you like to eat them or not, the future is fungi,” adds Cotter. “And be prepared to see them shine in many different aspects of our lives.”
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