Fungi to the rescue
Millions of years of evolution have created an astonishing variety of life. Many organisms have developed extraordinary ways to improve their chances of survival in nature, and when it comes to fungi, these ways can also help us create a more sustainable world. They are nature’s small problem-solvers and might even help us find solutions for some of today’s big problems.
Today’s big problems
9 environmental initiatives with fungi
Plywood panels, which are often used in furniture, are made from wood remnants bound together by a type of adhesive. This adhesive is often harmful to health and carcinogenic. The company Ecovative instead uses strong fungal mycelium to bind the biomaterial to a solid, hard material.
Operations such as Bolt Threads and MycoWorks make artificial leather from fungi. Fungal mycelium is grown in biomaterial and, if the growth conditions are right, the mycelium forms a strong net which is reminiscent of natural leather!
Insect control (biopesticides and flesh-eating fungi)
Some fungi produce toxic substances that act very specifically against certain types of insects. These secondary metabolites can be purified and used as biopesticides without harming the environment and the bees. There are also flesh-eating fungi that trap and eat ringworms, which present a pest control problem for agriculture!
In addition to the enormous amounts of fungi that are eaten throughout the world, fungi can also be used in alternative ways to meet our major need for protein. Some fungi grow extremely efficiently in the right growing conditions. Companies such as Quorn in the UK cultivate fungi in large vessels as a cheap and effective alternative to meat or plant protein.
Fungi can be grown on bioresidue material to produce an alternative material to the white polystyrene (flamingo), which is made from petroleum and is very difficult to break down. When the mycelium has grown to a large size, the material can be dried and pressed, and it has the same properties as the polystyrene.
Fungi hold the key to second-generation biofuel possibly competing with petrol and diesel in the future. Yeasts are used to ferment biomass into combustible alcohol. At the same time, fungi also contain enzymes which can break down cellulose very efficiently — for example, the biological residues which are the main components of stems.
Each year fungi ensure that autumn leaves decompose, so that we do are not covered in them! But many of these natural enzymes that break down various materials can also be used in other contexts. For instance, to break down microplastics in the oceans, treat our wastewater or remove oil in oil spills.
Larger crop yields
Mycorrhizal fungi live symbiotically with tree roots, which benefits both organisms. Maybe the same concept can be used in soil, where genetically modified fungi can increase nutrient uptake by crops and make agriculture more efficient?
Washing at lower temperatures
Fungi are nature’s experts at decomposing everything from wood to grass. It is the enzymes that the fungi produce which enable this. This ability is also useful in washing detergents. Some enzymes are effective at temperatures as low as 20°C. Think how much energy we could save if the entire planet washed clothes at 20°C instead of 40°C!
Dive into the world of fungi with three TED talks. Product designer Eben Bayer reveals his recipe for a new, fungus-based packaging material that protects fragile stuff like furniture, plasma screens – and the environment! Mycologist Paul Stamets studies the mycelium – and lists 6 ways the fungus can help save the world. And finally a powerful provocation from artist Jae Rhim Lee. She asks if we can commit our bodies to a cleaner, greener Earth, even after death?
Activity: How can fungi save the world?
Fungi are nature’s small problem-solvers and they might even help us find solutions for some of today’s big problems.
UN has defined 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to transform our world before 2030 – and we think fungi have a big role to play here. Click on the photo to right to explore the 17 sustainable development goals.
Now it’s your turn!
Discuss your ideas on how fungi and biology can help create a better and more sustainable world. Be creative – you might come up with the next big sustainable initiative.