Week 2: Mycelium and SCOBYs

I really enjoyed this week's lecture!!

Generally, I found it interesting that humans have been using yeast for a large portion of our development as a species (approximately 10,000 years), in both the liquid fermentation and solid fermentation forms. This does make me wonder - who was the first human to use yeast, and was it on purpose or accident? Where would we as a society be without bread, cheese, or liquor? (which are, coincidentally, three of my favorite things)

In particular, however, the discussion over the future of mycelium was fascinating to me, as I had never heard of this part of fungi before this class (to be fair, I don’t know much about fungi in general). According to the lecture, mycelium is the thread-like vegetative roots of fungi that collect food, water, and nutrients and also provide structural support for the fungi. Unlike yeast cells, which only grow as a single cell, mycelium is multicellular and is able to grow into macro-size structures that are extremely complex yet precise and intricate at the same time. During the process in which mycelium breaks down molecules of food using its enzymes and builds its network of microscopic fibers, scientists can intervene before the tissue fully develops into a mushroom. By altering the temperature, CO2 levels, humidity, and airflow of the environment, they can control the structure of the mycelium tissue into pretty much anything they want, including potential materials for packaging, clothing, construction, and food. According to Scientific American, this process is not only environmentally sustainable, but considerably quick, as “the accumulation of fibers becomes a visible speck after a few hours, a visible sheet after a day or two, and an 18-by-2-by-12-inch sheet weighing a couple of pounds within the course of a week.”

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As potential materials for clothing and other goods, mycelium offers humans an environmentally friendly alternative to the plastics that have overtaken our lives in recent decades. In particular during lecture, we discussed the promising future of mycelium as a natural material for clothes, shoes, and bags. An article by the Washington Post states that in recent years, new scientific advancements have encouraged manufacturers to create leather-like materials out of mycelium that have a much lower carbon footprint than traditional animal hides or plastic leather imitations. Because the fashion industry happens to be the world’s second most polluting industry, efforts to normalize the use of biodegradable, natural materials are becoming increasingly important for the future of our planet. Currently, the fashion industry consumes huge quantities of water and produces 10 percent of global carbon emissions, which is more than all international air travel and maritime shipping combined. In addition, most clothes from fast fashion retailers are made of oil-based textiles that are almost impossible to decompose when thrown away, which is an issue because Americans alone discard 11.3 million tons of clothing each year.

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Meanwhile, mycelium as replacements for existing foods, particularly meat, could also become a future reality. Mycelium shaped into meat-like structures is not only cruelty free, but much more environmentally friendly than traditional livestock. This is due to the fact that the process of growing and shaping mycelium results in minimal waste that also happens to be compostable and also requires extremely minimal energy consumption. Compared to the millions of tons of greenhouse gasses that are emitted by the current agriculture industry, food made of mycelium could be a much better alternative for the future.

This is why I particularly enjoyed the stained window art at the exhibit that we visited. The use of fungi materials to create art was not only interesting but innovative!

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Sources:

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/ 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/08/31/fashion-musrhooms-mycelium-climate/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7rS_d1fiUc&ab_channel=TED

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/14/business/leather-fake-mycelium-mushrooms-fashion.html