When will the first mycelium houses be built? Harnessing the potential of fungal biotechnology
Munich, 23 October 2023
Humans co-exist with fungi from birth: some live in, others on, our bodies. Still others live in symbiosis with plants, supplying them with nutrients and water from the soil. Indeed, the diversity of fungi seems endless. Today, fungal biotechnology is conducting research on how the metabolic potential of fungi can be harnessed for a sustainable and circular bioeconomy. In addition to medicines, enzymes and biofuels, will clothing, furniture and even homes be made from fungi in future? On 17 October, at acatech am Dienstag in cooperation with vhs.wissen live, microbiologist and artist Vera Meyer explained how this might be possible and why it is so important for science, art and society to work together on this.
At the start of this virtual edition of acatech am Dienstag, acatech President Jan Wörner pointed out aspects of our everyday lives where we encounter fungi: the aesthetics of a fly agaric, mould on bread and tasty button mushrooms. But how can we harness the potential of fungi that goes far beyond this?
There are roughly six million species of fungus on Earth – each with different properties – more or less the same number as animal species. acatech member Vera Meyer, Technische Universität Berlin, began her talk by saying that around 90 per cent of fungal species are as yet unknown. Vera Meyer is a scientist and artist, and combines the two disciplines in her work: her sculptures aim to give the world an understanding of fungi and represent the different functions of fungi. In her opinion, there is lots of overlap between the two disciplines: in both, experiments are conducted and, in both, data are collected and evaluated to find out how the world works.
Fungal biotechnology is a key platform technology
By and large, a fungus consists of mycelium, thread-like cells that branch out underground. The fact that fungi have all sorts of organic uses in addition to food is something that industry is exploiting: the mycelium is isolated and grown on plant residues such as sawdust or straw using biotechnological cultivation methods. The mycelium binds the plant particles together by surrounding and penetrating them, creating a composite material. Slabs of mycelium-based composite pressed at a moderate temperature can be used as insulating or construction materials. Furthermore, this crosslinking property of mycelium can also be exploited in concrete recycling, where it is used as a kind of “biological glue”.
Fungal biotechnology has been a key platform technology for a hundred years. The fungal biotechnology of today is exploring how the metabolic potential of fungi can be harnessed for a sustainable and circular bioeconomy. Countless products benefit from fungal biotechnology; according to studies, the global market potential for fungal products is estimated to be a multiple of that of the automotive or pharmaceutical industry. Moreover, many crude-oil-based materials could be replaced by fungi, said Vera Meyer. Soon, not only could medicines, enzymes and biofuels be manufactured using fungi, but also clothing, furniture and homes. The microbiologist explained how this might work based on the project MY-CO SPACE: a sculptural construct made of fungal materials that is meant to convey a sense and the experience of living in a wood-mycelium house.
Having been exhibited in various locations outside and inside, the next step now is to analyse possible material changes. The substrate for producing the mycelium elements used is the hoof fungus (fomes fomentarius). Its properties (regionally available, very light and very stable) make it ideal for the manufacture of construction materials. Vera Meyer concluded with the prediction that the first “fungus house” will be built by 2030. Projects like MycoWorks give insights on social media into the process of manufacturing such materials.
In the question-and-answer session that followed, the audience was particularly interested in life in a wood-mycelium house: How healthy is it to live in a wood-mycelium house? How much does it cost? It is earthquake-resistant? Could it burn down? Could the mycelium elements get infested with mould? Vera Meyer assumes that a wood-mycelium house would probably cost a similar amount to a standard single-family home, as the raw materials used are waste products from agriculture and forestry. However, there are not yet enough large-scale production processes to be more specific. Living in a wood-mycelium house does not present a health risk, as the mycelium (and not the fruiting body) is used. This part of the fungus does not produce spores. In addition, the material is heat-treated to kill living cells. The mycelium elements could quite possibly become infested by another fungus if they get very damp (e.g. in a flood) but impregnation methods are being developed as well. If damaged, the houses could be quickly rebuilt using resources efficiently.
Further information on Vera Meyer’s projects:
Engage with Fungi
Meyer, Vera; Schmidt, Bertram; Pohl, Carsten; Schmidts, Christian; Hoberg, Friederike; Weber, Birke; Stelzer, Lisa; Angulo Meza, Angely; Saalfrank, Cornelia; Sharma, Sunanda; Weinhold, Martin; Glocksin, Bernhard; Rosetto, Sabrina; Syperek, Markus; Krause, Jens; Volpato, Alessandro; Noonan, Logan; Nazarek, Annemarie; Göngrich, Erik; Wilhelm, Nora; Heber, Lena; Pfeiffer, Sven; Rauwolf, Gudrun; Meyer, Vera; Pfeiffer, Sven
How do we want to live in the future? How do we take responsibility for the future of the Earth, for our environment, for our society? By facing the great challenges of today together. By fusing the creativity engines of science, art, and society in order to jointly and transdisciplinarily develop visions for a sustainable future and viable paths towards it.