The technology that will build our future can be found in mashroom

The technology that will build our future

The key to the future of the human race may be just below our feet. It sounds strange, but fungi better known as fungi can help solve many of society's greatest challenges, from cleaning the environment and living more sustainably to colonizing other planets.

Coiled in almost every square inch of the ground are small biological wires called mycelia. They are the raw and exposed nervous system of fungi that hold the planet together. When your feet press against the ground, or when it rains, or when a tree falls, the fungus network responds, transmitting chemical data in all directions and altering its growth and behavior accordingly. The crossed mycologist Paul Stamets calls the mycelia the "nature's neurological network" and a "biomolecular superhighway". He compares this fungal network with the human nervous system and the structure of the Universe.

For some, the description of Stamets fungi may sound uncomfortably metaphysical. But he is right that, like a nervous system, fungal networks have been managing Earth's ecosystems for eons. And by learning to take advantage of these amazing organisms, we can build a stronger and more sustainable world

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To understand why fungi are so crucial to Earth's ecosystems, we need to start with their lifestyle. Fungi are the decomposers of nature, the interface organisms between life and death. They spend most of their time unseen and underground, tearing apart the tissues of dead plants and animals molecule by molecule. If you've ever seen something pearl white, similar to a spider's web that covers a log, you've witnessed a fungal frenzy celebrating. As the mycelia chew the soil, they use their microscopic thinness to unlock nutrients that plant roots cannot access. They also perceive their environment and transmit a constant flow of data through their network, which the fungus uses to direct its growth.

In this way, fungal mycelia can cross a landscape, moving up to several inches per day, without a prescribed body plan, more or less indefinitely. (It is not surprising, then, that the largest organism on Earth is a fungus 2.4 miles in diameter in eastern Oregon.) They only require water, nutrients and a constant supply of carbon to keep moving forward. Saprotrophic fungi extract their carbon from the soil, by breaking down sugary cellulose and hard and woody lignin. Mycorrhizal fungi exchange with plants, exchanging nutrients for sugar by joining their mycelium with root systems. This relationship, between fungal mycelia and plant roots, is one of the most important symbiosis on Earth. Most trees and other plants would never reach maturity if their fungal partners were not supplying them with nitrogen and other critical nutrients.

To get an idea of ​​how strange fungal metabolism is, imagine if, every time you are hungry, you could tell your stomach to go to Burger King to eat on your behalf. Such is the nature of fungal feeding. The real work of decomposition of the Earth is not carried out directly by the fungus, but by a soup of extracellular digestive enzymes, which travel through the soil as independent agents, looking for molecules to decompose. By sending its enzymatic minions to digest the world around it, the fungus remains constantly bathed in all the resources it needs to grow.
For decomposers, no two lunches are alike. That is why fungi have developed a variety of enzymes, which can be expressed in different situations. A fungus that makes its way through a trunk will secrete mainly enzymes that digest wood, while a fungus that feeds on a dead beetle releases a mixture of enzymes that break down proteins, carbohydrates and chitin (the molecular component of insect exoskeletons). To access as much organic energy as possible on the planet, fungi have become very, very good at breaking down almost everything.
And that is exactly why we can use mushrooms to clean the planet.

Saving the earth

In 2011, a group of Yale university students on a field expedition to the Ecuadorian Amazon encountered something extraordinary: Pestalotiopsis microspora, a rainforest fungus with a healthy appetite for polyurethane, the plastic found throughout, from garden hoses to shoes and car seats. Once polyurethane enters landfills, it remains there for generations; If our trash compactors were also full of pestalotiopsis, it could be a very different story.

The discovery of Pestalotiopsis is not an isolated case. Scattered throughout the world, mycologists have identified fungi that can replace your usual woody diet with more exotic snacks such as oil. As Stamets describes in its Mycelium Running mushroom manifesto, there are fungi that can absorb toxic heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and mercury, with no apparent side effects. There are even mushrooms that will delight in radioactive waste.

All this goes back to fungal ecology. Fungi evolved to fulfill a very specific ecological role: that of the digestive system of our planet. Now, some scientists want to use fungus digestion for our benefit and train fungi to clean up our environmental problems. Stamets is involved in numerous "mycoremeditation" efforts, including one that uses mushrooms to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill and another that investigates whether radiation-loving mushrooms can help remedy Fukushima.

Build the future

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The idea that we can use mushrooms to clean our most unpleasant environmental disorders is exciting, but every day, we continue to build our world with materials that pollute and do not degrade. What would happen if we could begin to gradually eliminate plastics, foams and synthetic building materials destructive to the environment? With mushrooms by our side, this could be possible. Mycelia, incredibly resistant and naturally biodegradable, can literally build our future.

Before going back to the idea of ​​a mushroom house, you'll want to see the work of mycologist and designer Phil Ross, who has been turning mushrooms into beautiful structures for over twenty years. Ross, a self-styled "artisan mycologist", discovered that, given the right substrate and growth conditions, fungal mycelia can be assembled in almost any shape and density under the sun.

For Ross, building with mushrooms began as an artistic hobby. He cultivated armchairs, stools, tables and baskets, all filling a mold with sawdust and inoculating it with mycelia. But it was not until he began growing interwoven bricks and building entire structures from fungal mycelia that Ross realized that he had stumbled upon something big.

"These bricks can withstand incredible compression and cutting forces," Eddie Pavlu, CEO of MycoWorks, told me over the phone. “If you put two of them in contact while the mycelium is still alive, they merge. We are discovering that the link between them tends to be as strong as the brick itself. "

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