The mushroom revolution

The citizen science project “Mind the Fungi!” creates construction material, clothing and packaging from mushroom cultures

We are used to consuming mushrooms: Bread, cheese, wine and beer are all produced using fungi. As is much of the medication we use. But can we also imagine sitting on furniture made from mushrooms, living in homes constructed from mushrooms or wearing clothing manufactured from them? Vera Meyer certainly can. Professor Meyer is head of the Chair of Applied and Molecular Biology and founder of the “Mind the Fungi!” citizen science project. She finds mushrooms fascinating. “There are some six million different species worldwide and they all have their own characteristics. Some of these provide us the chance today to transform our petroleum-based economy into a bio-based economy. They even have a pioneering function with “Scientific American” recently proclaiming: “The mycelium revolution is upon us.”

Mushrooms as an alternative to petroleum-based materials

Biotechnologist Vera Meyer´s team is experimenting with a wide range of versatile and serviceable mushrooms. On renewable plant residues, one produces enzymes and citric acid, another biomaterial, while a third functions as a mini chemical factory for the production of medicines. Now research is being conducted on mushrooms which can be used for the production of textiles, furniture and packaging material: the ideal replacement for petroleum-based materials such as plastic, leather from animals and even construction material such as plasterboard.
The mushrooms are cultivated in bioreactors in the labs on TU Berlin´s TIB premises in Wedding. This process is being conducted in collaboration with Professor Dr. Peter Neubauer´s bioprocess engineering lab at TU Berlin. The researchers are examining the genetic makeup of the mushrooms, analyzing their genomes (which consist of some 10,000 different genes) and altering these for specific purposes using genetic engineering.

Using citizen science to create a better carbon footprint

Including the expertise, ideas, visions, thoughts and concerns of scientists from completely different disciplines as well as artists, designers and members of the public is an important aspect of citizen science projects. To achieve this inclusiveness, the researchers give public talks and organize discussions and workshops
“The public mushroom collecting events we have organized in forests have already enabled us to collect 70 different polypores, which we then identified in our labs,” says Vera Meyer. “You see, the regional aspect plays an important role for the potential applications we are researching here.” The “Mind the Fungi!” researchers cultivate the mushrooms on plant residues and biomass, such as straw, wood chips and flax. During cultivation, this combination creates solid composite material – a 100 percent biomaterial which can be used to create clothing, furniture or walls for buildings which are less flammable, produce less carbon dioxide when burnt and which are compostable after use. They are also sustainable: The production of one kilogram of cotton requires approximately 10,000 liters of water. The same quantity of textile produced from mushrooms theoretically only requires 100 liters. The TU Chair of Sustainable Engineering under Professor Matthias Finkbeiner is examining whether mushroom-based materials can actually be sustainably produced and whether they have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional materials and products. Other chairs from Faculty III - Process Sciences are also involved in the project.

Art made of polypores

But “Mind the Fungi!” also reveals another dimension. Vera Meyer, who was also recently made a member of the National Academy of Science and Engineering or “acatech” is equally fascinated by the optical and haptic aesthetic of the mushroom, whose delicate structures she often studies through a microscope. She also paints and creates sculptures of polypores working under her artistic alias “V. meer”. She regards today´s division between natural sciences and art as a barrier to innovative ideas and solutions to the problems facing humankind. “Leonardo da Vinci was simultaneously artist, inventor, engineer and anatomist.

Natural scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt discussed ideas with the poet and natural scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the philosopher, historian and medical doctor Friedrich Schiller,” she explains listing the eminent names and their fields of action. Regarding an object or organism from an artistic point of view could also help inspire researchers today with new ideas and encourage them to approach their work from a new perspective. This explains why the Art Laboratory Berlin is part of the “Mind the Fungi!” project team. The researchers see great future interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary potential in this project: “Our goal is to apply for a DFG Collaborative Research Center.”

“Mind the Fungi!” goes public

Scientists, artists and designers are also displaying the potential of mushroom technology to the public at the Futurium on Alexanderufer in Berlin. They are exhibiting examples of how mushrooms grow on plant residues such as wood or straw and bind with them to create a solid material which can even be used for construction purposes. “Mind the Fungi!” is also among the 50 contributions selected from 160 submissions for the Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation in Essen organized by Wissenschaft im Dialog (WiD). In the summer semester, biotechnology students from TU Berlin and product design students from the Kunsthochschule Weißensee spent six weeks developing new bio-based products as part of Greenlab 8.0: They produced objects of utility from textile waste, which they transformed into stable three-dimensional objects through mushroom fermentation, colored textiles with microbial pigments and composite materials using polypores.