Mycological biofabrication: mushrooms are a revolution in manufacturing
There is a single technology that could replace a significant part of the most ecologically disastrous materials we use: plastics, concrete, insulation, leather, meat, and even more. Mycelium – the vegetative form of multi-cellular filamentous fungi consisting of thousands of interwoven root-like strands called hyphae – is that technology, which we are just starting to take seriously.
There may be as many as six times more species of fungi than there are plants, and the fungal kingdom is every bit as exotic and diverse as plant and animal life. There are nearly infinite ways to leverage fungal biodiversity, like fermentation of pharmaceuticals with yeast, making cheese from cream, and foraging for culinary mushrooms, but this newsletter only covers only a tiny fraction: applications of filamentous mycelium (sometimes called solid-state fermentation).
How it works
Fabrication with mycelium is the biological equivalent of the plastic injection moulding with petrochemicals. The general concept is that the mycelium of a fungal inoculant will grow and feed on a carbohydrate-rich substrate (like corn husks or wood shavings) until it colonizes the 3D space with dense, interlocking fibers of chitosan (what the cell walls of mycelium are made of; the same stuff as insect exoskeletons).
Many of these process parameters can be tweaked to get different results: fungal species/strain, substrate/feedstocks, nutrient additives, bioprocess system design, container/bioreactor shape, CO2 and water levels, temperature, post-production processing, and more.
There are three primary reasons why mycelium is sustainable and efficient: circularity, flexibility, and functionality.
Circularity. Fungi are nature’s fundamental scavengers and recyclers, driving decomposition of organic material and even solid rock through powerful enzymes only fungi produce; they are not picky eaters. This allows us to use waste streams as the primary inputs in production while also displacing petrochemical-based products with those that more readily biodegrade.
Flexibility. The same production process allows for creation of a huge number of products with relatively modest tweaks to the process, which explains the emergence of mycelium “platform” companies producing disparate product lines. I dive into the breadth of applications in the next section.
Functionality. Why switch from existing product paradigms? Mycelium is uniquely functional. It can provide thermal insulation and fire resistence, is especially lightweight, can self-repair damage, and possesses antimicrobial qualities, in addition to story-telling benefits.
Applications for mycelium are broad and impactful. Below, I’ll highlight a few of the major categories I’ve seen research or commercialization of so far.
Meat without animals (alternative proteins).
“Plant-based” meat. Filamentous fungi have been used to make semi-structured ground meat analogs since Quorn in the 1980s (and for centuries to make tempeh in Southeast Asia). More mycoprotein companies have cropped up across the globe, like Mycorena (Sweden), Mycovation (Singapore), and Kernel (Argentina), with new companies like Meati and Atlast Food Co creating structured whole cuts like steak, fish fillets, and bacon.
Cultivated meat. Cell-based meat is quickly becoming a reality, but 3D structured products remains a technological challenge. Mycelium-based scaffolding is one solution being explored by Novel Farms, and it could also be used to grow organs or tissues for medical use. See GFI’s State of the Industry report on Fermentation for more on alternative protein applications of mycelium.
Household goods and clothing.
Furniture. Among the first applications of mycelium to emerge were high-value 3D objects like chairs, lamps, statues, and art pieces made by avant garde designers. Really, you (literally you) can grow whatever shape you want if you have the right mold (which can be 3D printed).
Textiles. Fashion also sprouted early. Mycelium “leather” is extremely promising, referred to as Fall 2020’s hottest fashion trend by the New York Times, with the likes of Adidas, Kering, and lululemon developing products. I imagine this will go well beyond luxury garmets, but rather become a new category of functional textile. The “growing a MarsBoot” project definitely gets the imagination going.
Transportation, packaging, & automotive.
Styrofoam. Mushrooms may seriously change the way we package and transport goods (and people). Mycelium can feed on cheap, lightweight substrates like grasses and is our best hope for replacing polystyrene which alongside plastic comprises 90% of marine debris. Ecovative Design has pioneered this category.
Automotive. Ford has nine patents relating to filamentous fungi, mostly for aesthetic and interior molding components, according to this fantastic patent analysis conducted by Mycorena. Mycelium also touches the roads themselves. We could produce self-paving, self-repairing, or even self-designing roads (recall the famous slime mold Tokyo railway design study).
Materials. Self-repairing concrete foundations are just the beginning. Sustainble insulation, composite materials (novel particle board, drywall, etc), and even acoustic panels are in development.
Buildings. It’s entirely possible that entire structures could be built with mycelium, perhaps even grown. This field, called myco-architecture, is even being researched by NASA as a way to build habitats on the Moon and Mars (not to mention mining materials from space rock).
Soil. Nearly all plants evolved symbiotically with fungi, which provide the plant’s roots with minerals in exchange for sugars (a mycorrhizal relationship). That fundamental relationship has mostly been ignored in favor of chemically-supplemented, frequently-tilled industrial monocropping, but producers seem to be increasingly turning to providers like MycoBloom to introduce the mycelium back into the soils. Mycelium can also break down petroleum, pesticides, and heavy metals which is leading to a few companies working on mycoremediation.
Computing & Information. The aforementioned mycorrhizal networks have been shown to connect plants to each other as a way to send nutrients and information (e.g. when one plant is being infested by insects it warns others, via electrical impulses and/or chemicals) in what has been called the “wood wide web.” Perhaps this is what inspired the exploration of fungi-based biocomputing. It’s not purely science fiction: Ecovative was granted a patent in 2016 for electric circuits composed of mycelium.
Other. Unique applications abound and organizations like the University of Utrecht Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute will help uncover more. I’ve seen cosmetic sponges, coffins, food colorants, wound dressings, floating sea buoys, but we’ve probably just barely scratched the surface of what is possible.
It seems to me that most innovative applications in this space are being driven by entrepreneurs who have been “innoculated” by a fascination by fungi and have built startups around the concept of biofabrication with mycelium. Below, I provide a sampling of market-leading companies, listed oldest to youngest. I exclude large chemicals companies that have broad patent portfolios in the space, particularly DSM, DuPont, and Novozymes. It looks like the major clusters are in the Denver, CO area and the Berkeley, CA area.
Ecovative. The godfather of industrial mycelium innovation. Has a “mycelium foundry” (I’m jealous) and has spun out multiple companies, including Atlast Food Co which successfully launched a myco-bacon in late 2020. Raised over $30 million, including funds from the U.S. EPA, NSF, SBA (SBIR recipient), and USDA. Founded in Albany, New York in 2007.
Bolt Threads. Maker of mycelium leather in addition to spider silk textiles (see my last post). Commercializing their leather in 2021 with fashion partners including Adidas, Kering, and lululemon. Raised over $214 million from VCs, including Peter Thiel’s and Eric Schmidt’s respective funds. Founded in Berkeley, California in 2009.
MycoWorks. Maker of mycelium leather for footwear and fashion. Founded in Berkeley, California in 2013. Has raised over $62 million, including checks from Natalie Portman, John Legend, and SOSV.
MycoTechnology Inc. Ferments rice and pea with shiitake mycelium for a functional proteins and sweetners, whose clients include the world’s largest meat company, JBS (through their OZO plant-based meat line). Has raised nearly $130 million. Founded in Denver in 2013.
MYCL Mycotech Lab. Maker of mycelium bags, clothing, statues, furniture, and more through partnerships with designers. Founded in Bandung, Indonesia in 2015.
MOGU. Biofabrication laboratory working on construction materials and food from agricultural waste streams. Founded in Milan, Italy in 2015.
Meati. Formerly dba Emergy Labs and BTRFY Foods, they produce steak, fish fillets, and chicken breast analogs from mycelium produced via liquid state fermentation then pressed into form. Has raised $33 million. Founded in Boulder, Colorado in 2016.
MushLabs. Cultivates mycelial biomass in large fermenters for food applications. Raised $10 million. Founded in Berlin, Germany in 2018.
Shenzhen Zeqingyuan Tech. Shenzhen, China based startup that develops fungi-based bio-degradable materials from agricultural sidestreams with a focus on packaging and biofertilizer, from what I can find online.
According to two recent patent analyses (see sources below), the vast majority of relevant patents in food, materials, and chemicals are held by applicants in the U.S., China, EU (particularly the Netherlands), and Japan, primarily by the three large chemical companies mentioned above. These patents, of which at least 500 appear to have been granted, seem to run the gambit of production processes, applications, and use of feedstocks. This will likely lead to harmful IP battles down the road (see biotech IP disputes) but it makes me feel better to know that the U.S patent office granted approximately 4,000 cannabis-related patents between 2012 and 2019 alone, so this is probably normal.
I am insanely excited to see the role of mycelium in society in 20 years.
Thanks for reading, and feel free to subscribe and share with the buttons below. If you’d like a deeper dive into the world of mycelium (and fungi more broadly), I’m current reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and couldn’t recommend it highly enough.