What Role Will Mushrooms Play in a Sustainable Future?

static.squarespace.comAs we move forward to a more sustainable and flourishing future, we’re going to need to increase our understanding of our role in the biosphere and request the assistance of some of our fellow planetary occupants, many of whom can do things that we can’t.

One of these we’ll likely need are mushrooms. Of course they are delicious on pizza and in soup, but they also have some amazing properties that make them essential for the maintenance of the soil, on which we all depend. Not only are they one of nature’s best recyclers, breaking down waste matter into simpler compounds that feed the soil, but they can also break down toxins and render them harmless.

From this comes the idea of mycoremediation. That’s the practice of using mushrooms to clean up contaminated soil. White-rot fungi dissolve the fibers of wood by secreting enzymes that break the fibers down. A similar mechanism can be used to break down complex hydrocarbons such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). In fact, these mushrooms can be used effectively against a whole array of infamous toxins including dioxins, PCBs, pesticides, coal tar and crude oil. Generally, the fungi are introduced into a contaminated area in conjunction with substrates such as straw, wood chips, bark or other organic material to help them grow.

The concept has been demonstrated at relatively large scale. For example, in 2007, there was an oil spill of some 58,000 gallons of crude off the coast of California. Large mats of woven human hair were used to collect the oil, which were then removed from the water and treated with oyster mushrooms and straw. Within a few weeks the mats were broken down into soil that was clean enough to be used for roadside landscaping. Other examples and discussion of mycoremediation can be found here.

Now, a team of micro-biologists and designers at Livin Studio in Vienna got together and added a new twist that combines both of these amazing mushroom properties. The fungi mutarium is an artificial environment in which edible mushrooms are used to break down plastic, creating a product that is not only safe but edible. This truly takes the cradle-to-cradle precept of “waste equals food” about as far as you can go.

The process works like this: First bits of thin plastic, like the polyethylene bags that stores like to give out, are chopped up and then exposed to UV light to kill germs. Then they are placed in little pods made of agar, an edible culture medium often used in laboratories to grow bacteria and other microorganisms. It is also sometimes used as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin.

Then, liquefied fungi sprouts derived from two popular mushrooms, oyster and split gill, are added and left in an incubator-like environment that is conducive to fungal growth. After several weeks the plastic is completely decomposed, leaving nothing but edible growth.

I know that after reading this you are going to want to rush out and buy your own mutarium, so that you can begin eating those plastic bags that have been cluttering up your house, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait for a while. The whole concept is still in the research phase. For one thing, it still takes too long for the process to complete. The team will continue to investigate ways to speed things up.

This does not really sound all that useful, though it certainly would be handy if you found yourself stranded in the middle of the Pacific garbage patch. If nothing else, it’s certainly food for thought.

Image courtesy of Livin, Studio Photography by Paris Tsitsos 2014

RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com