Fungi Are Part of Our Future

TU biotechnologist Vera Meyer works on new bio-based, resource saving materials and believes fungal biotechnology represents a unique opportunity for sustainability

Vera Meyer is passionate about fungi; and not just their taste, smell and strange shapes and forms. She would not be the scientist she is if she were not also inspired by a wonderful vision. Meyer’s goal is nothing less than the transformation of our oil-based society into a bio-based society. She is convinced that fungi are part of our future. “Building materials, clothing, packaging - everything can be produced in a resource-efficient and recyclable way using fungi.” What may at first sound like an absurd utopian vision is actually grounded in scientific reality. “We don’t think twice about ingesting fungi in bread, wine, cheese and beer,” says biotechnologist Meyer, who two years ago launched the citizen science project “Mind the Fungi!” at TU Berlin. “But fungi have much more to offer than just this. Worldwide, there are some 6 million different species of fungi, each with their own specific characteristics.Biotechnology has long used them as cell factories in the production of antibiotics, cholesterol sinkers, insulin, vitamins, enzymes, biofuels and much more besides.” The possibilities researched by Meyer and her colleagues, however, are much more far reaching. “Some of these highly versatile organisms also have the potential to replace building materials like concrete or plasterboard, clothing made of leather, and plastic packaging. You can even make furniture using fungi. And once you are finished with them, all these products can be used as compost!”

Fungal technology as a driver of the bioeconomy

The innovative ideas behind this movement are revolutionary and include the production of climate-neutral food. We are witnessing a global fungal revolution, with German research very much in the vanguard. International experts are united in their belief that fungal technology can be a driver of the bioeconomy. It comes as no great surprise then that Vera Meyer and her colleague Philipp Benz, professor of wood bioprocesses at TU München, have been selected as “thinkers of change” as part of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s Science Year 2020, dedicated to the topic of bioeconomics. “Fungi are at one and the same time microorganisms and the greatest living organisms on Earth. They combine particularly valuable and unique biological capacities, enabling them to function as biotechnological production machines in numerous areas of application,” explains Meyer. “In a sense they are nature’s garbage disposal, masters in the art of biomass decomposition, and are able to break down complex renewable plant raw materials into their constituent parts using active enzymes, especially those occurring in agriculture and forestry. But they also excel at synthesis, meaning they can combine and reassemble these components for a wide range of products. As such, they offer us a unique opportunity to create a new, completely bio-based economy based on the principles of the circular economy and sustainability.”

Bricks and bicycle helmets

The pan-European think tank EUROFUNG published a white paper last summer summarizing the discussions of leading European and American researchers and global businesses on the future potential of fungal technology. Vera Meyer is the lead author of this white paper. “Growing a circular economy with fungal biotechnology” describes how investment in this future technology can help achieve at least 10 of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. According to the authors, fungal biotechnology can provide the answers to key questions, such as how to feed ten billion people without damaging the environment or how to meet the rising demand of a growing population for textiles or leather while reducing the consumption of water and even eliminating animal suffering. Fungal biotechnology also makes it possible to develop chemical industry products without using oil and to construct buildings without using concrete, a material so damaging to the climate.

A number of prototypes have already been developed. Working in the applied molecular and microbiology labs at TU Berlin’s TIB campus in Wedding, formerly an AEG production site, Meyer’s fifty-strong team has already developed fungi-based bio bricks as well as flame-resistant insulating material and alternatives to styrofoam for bicycle helmets.

An artistic take on scientific facts

In the times of Leonardo da Vinci, science and art had not yet become separate disciplines, explains Vera Meyer. Goethe and Schiller were also involved in both artistic and scientific undertakings. So it is that Meyer herself researches the genetics and suitability of fungi as biomaterials working as a biotechnologist in her lab, while also using the same material to create sculptures in her atelier under her artistic pseudonym V.meer. She combined Pholiota squarrosa, or shaggy scalycap, with gold and rust to create her sculpture “Philotas” inspired by Lessing’s little-performed tragedy. Other fungi have been transformed into works like “Tree of Life“ or “Dancing Queen”. She encourages other researchers in her academic chair to embark on artistic projects, and also works with artists such as textile designer Aniela Hoitink to examine how biomaterials can be used in clothing. “Viewing an organism with an artistic eye can inspire breathtaking ideas in researchers normally used to working with hard facts."

Art inspires science

International interest and recognition for Meyer’s work is not just restricted to academic publications. She was also among the finalists chosen from the 900 most significant contributors to leading research at this year’s Berlin Science Week and “Falling Walls” conference. Meyer’s lively enthusiasm for fungi also plays an important role in her life outside of work, where she creates strangely beautiful artworks using fungi, wood, bones, lichens, rotten fruit, scrap iron, and components used in bioreactors. Her sculptures seem to belong to fairytale kingdoms or even other planets. Though subtle, their philosophical message also acts like a finger pointing at a muddy fence post: nothing disappears in nature, everything is transformation.

At the start of 2020, she exhibited her works as part of the “Artomics” exhibition with the aim of raising visitors’ awareness of the unseen world around them. “For me, the boundaries between art and science are fluid,” says Meyer. “Art is not only a wonderfully aesthetic form of scientific communication; my art also inspires my scientific work.”

Exhibition showcasing future ways of life and living scheduled for 2021

Her latest project also embraces both art and science. Working together with architect Sven Pfeiffer of the University of the Arts Berlin, Meyer set up the SciArt collective MY-CO-X. Their collective will be taking part in the “tinyBE” exhibition series to be held in public spaces in Frankfurt, Darmstadt and Wiesbaden in 2021. The series will present nine habitable sculptures created by artists from Germany and abroad. The “MY-CO SPACE” sculpture will show how future ways of life and living can be experienced, conceived and understood using fungi. The project addresses the following utopian question: “How can biological-technical structures designed in part using fungi be integrated into essential living functions within the smallest spaces so as to enable people to live and work freely using extremely limited resources?”

Original publication

This text originally appeared in German on 29 November 2020, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper TU Berlin supplement.

Author: Patricia Pätzold