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Sprouting Up

Carolyn Jung | May 17, 2016 | Story News and Features

They are a favorite pizza topper, a must-have in a hearty ragu and an essential in buttery duxelles that envelop classic beef Wellington. But some day, they just might prove to be the latest, greatest material for manufacturing protective gear, furniture, houses—and potentially much more.

Yes, we’re talking about mushrooms.

San Francisco startup MycoWorks aims to turn industrial design on its head by using mycelium, the root-like fibers of mushrooms, for environmentally friendly building materials. “People think it’s so strange when they first hear about it,” says Philip Ross, the company’s co-founder and a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Department of Bioengineering. “But when they see it, their mind explodes with the possibilities.”

At San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation, visitors can see for themselves at the new interactive exhibit, BioDesign Studio. MycoWorks has set up a station there where one can build bricks out of mushroom material while sitting at a table made from the same.

The first thing you notice is that there is no characteristic loamy aroma in the resulting bricks. Second, the bricks are surprisingly light. In fact, depending upon the density desired, the material can even be fashioned into buoys that float. What’s more, the mushroom matter is fire-resistant and has vibration-dampening qualities that might be especially useful in earthquake-prone areas. The stuff is so strong that a teahouse was built from it in Germany.

The bricks can also be composted. Or fed to livestock. Or even used to brew a nutritional tea, Ross says. A forager who once sold mushrooms to restaurants, he became fascinated with mycelium as a building material when he started growing his own fungi. To date, though, no studies have been done to determine whether someone allergic to mushrooms could live without adverse reactions inside a mycotecture structure.

Mycelium can be grown in almost any kind of agriculture waste, including sawdust and pistachio shells. MycoWorks inoculates it with the live culture of the reishi mushroom, which will feed off of anything, unlike other pickier mushrooms. The mushrooms grow together within the material, which can be configured into any shape, forming natural polymers that adhere like glue. The material is then baked to kill the organisms, so that if it ever got wet, mushrooms wouldn’t start sprouting again.

Given that the West Coast is already one of the richest fungal areas in the world, Ross believes MycoWorks—which has received seed funding from San Francisco biotech accelerator IndieBio—has enormous potential. In fact, the Stanford bioengineering lab is already investigating the possibility of growing electronics out of mycelium.

“Could Silicon Valley one day be Fungal Valley instead?” Ross ponders. “I do hope so.”

Visit the BioDesign Studio exhibit at the Tech Museum of Innovation, 201 S. Market St., San Jose, 408.294.8324

Originally published in the May issue of Silicon Valley

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