While weeding my garden last summer, I discovered a large morel mushroom growing near the back fence. After confirming that it wouldn't kill me, I carried this spongy treat off to the kitchen, unaware of the design and building revolution waiting to break out in the ground below.
Fungal organisms grow all over the world, sending threadlike roots through soil, fallen trees and any other available organic matter. Now those expansive root structures – called mycelia – are being used to grow furniture, packing materials and even buildings.
In this mushroom revolution, a mash of corn stalks, hemp hulls or other agricultural byproducts is packed into a fabricated mould and inoculated with mycelia. The fungus feeds on the organic material and grows thousands of branching fibres throughout it, forming a strong, interlocking matrix. Proponents of the low-energy process say that it has the potential to replace tonnes of the plastic materials we throw away every year. They predict an explosion of green mycelial manufacturing that could lessen our dependence on oil, soften our footprint on the Earth and raise living standards in developing countries.
"This kind of material is going to be rampant," says Phil Ross, a San Francisco artist and biotech explorer who has used the process to make chairs, bricks and small shelters. Mycelia are found almost everywhere, he says, can feed on materials sourced locally, and are highly responsive to the environmental controls he uses to customize density, strength and texture.
The main component of mycelial fibres is chitin, a tough biopolymer that is also found in crab shells.
After several days' growth in Ross's moulds, the mycelia bind the remaining organic material like a fibrous glue that hardens when the object is heated or dried to halt growth.
Ross's mycelial chair bodies are grown mostly from sawdust and tree fungus, with a little calcium for added strength; the legs are crafted from recycled hardwood. The texture of the seats looks wood-like, yet also has a mottled appearance, like raw marble.
"Mushrooms are transformative, between states, and that's a very interesting place to be, aesthetically," says Ross.
"They're indeterminate and alien, and kind of grotesque." He named one of his chairs after Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer who also found beauty in grotesque natural shapes.
Ross has grown bricks that have mushrooms sprouting from one side, to emphasize the hybrid nature of a deliberately structured item that is also alive. But mycelial products can also be made into strictly regular forms, or covered with paints or laminates.
Eben Bayer has focused his efforts on those more uniform items, as he manoeuvres his New York company Ecovative into position to replace packing materials such as Styrofoam. In four years, Ecovative has grown from a small lab to a 60-person business whose packaging clients include Dell Computer and Crate & Barrel.
"I'd say we're extremely competitive, especially against plastic foam," Bayer says.
"There's a couple billion dollars' worth of plastic foam used annually. We're really trying to displace that."
In 2012, Ecovative signed a licensing deal with Sealed Air Corp., which sells $7.6-billion worth of packing materials annually, and which now operates an Ecovative-designed mycelial factory in Iowa. Unlike plastic foam, everything produced there is biodegradable.
"When you're done with it, you throw it into the garden and it feeds other things," says Mitchell Joachim, director of research at Terreform One, a Brooklyn-based ecological design studio. Terreform One built a replica of New York's New Museum from "mycoform" blocks, grown with reishi mushroom mycelia, and installed the replica beside the museum in 2010.
This summer, Ecovative will provide bricks for Hy-Fi, an all-organic, three-storey tower at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, designed by "adaptive" architect David Benjamin.
The company has also developed mushroom-based wallboard, insulation for buildings and cars, furniture designs it will take to trade shows this summer, and mycelial cores for prototype surfboards. On a grander scale, Bayer is trying to get a mycelial housing project going in Bolivia, using locally sourced feed materials.
Ecovative mixes its mycelia with corn husks from its local area north of Albany, N.Y., and hemp hulls brought in from Alberta and Quebec.
Although it's possible to make chairs, blocks and other items through a rough "home-brew" method, Bayer says, consistent results require a sterile environment and an optimal mix of materials. Any rogue bacteria creeping into the forms would reduce the strength of the finished product.
One interesting peculiarity of bricks or blocks made with mycelia is that the fungus can also act as a mortar. If the blocks are stacked together at the right time in the production cycle, the fibres in each block will bond with those in adjacent blocks, knitting the structures together. Mycelial wallboards could attach themselves to laminates in the same way.
It takes more time to produce something with mycelia than with plastic, because the fungus needs to eat and grow, usually five days or more. But Bayer says that a mycelia wallboard factory could build up inventory just like any other factory, and packaging foams are usually custom-designed, with a lead time for production.
Where there are products, there are usually patents, and both Ross and Ecovative have patented their versions of the procedure. The language is so similar, Joachim says, that the patents are virtually identical.
"They specify different uses but they say almost the same thing," Joachim says.
"They've patented a technique that happens naturally." Ecovative has also trademarked the word "mushroom" in its brand name, Mushroom® Materials.
Bayer says he welcomes new players in his young industry, but Joachim says that when Terreform's mycoform block structure went on display in Brooklyn in 2010, "[Ecovative] was very tense about other people using the material."
After "a very nervous meeting" with the company, he says, Terreform signed a contract to do R&D work for Ecovative and to formally renounce manufacturing.
Similar meetings between Ecovative and Phil Ross resulted in the two agreeing to go their separate ways.
As the industry grows, there could be more effort put into erecting patent fences. Terreform is investigating genetic modifications to reishi mycelia that could result, says Joachim, in a short-lived strain that would conveniently die off just when a factory might want to stop its growth. Those modified strains could be patented, just as Monsanto has patented its GMOs.
"But there are probably thousands of ways of genetically modifying mycelium, which is the most ubiquitous thing on the surface of the Earth," Joachim says.
"Any land form can have all variations of mycelium and fungi."
Joachim feels there's enough diversity there for everyone. I look forward to eating more morels from my backyard patch, while sitting on a reishi mushroom chair.