Functional Fungi

Writer and curator Francesca Gavin considers future applications of the integral organism on mental health, architecture, and space exploration

Seana Gavin, Untitled, Mushroom Chimney

Can mushrooms save the world? At first glance this appears to be a comedic question, in the wake of ecological crisis, political unrest, and social disconnection. Yet increasingly scientists, designers, philosophers, writers, economists, technologists, and of course, mycologists are looking to fungi for practical and metaphorical ways out of the current mess we are in. Humanity is deeply in need of fresh ways of thinking and the mushroom appears to be the new way out.

On a practical level, some of the new hopeful prototypes and proposals come out of discoveries around mycelium. This organism is the brain and body of fungi. Mushrooms are in fact more like flowers, emerging briefly to disperse spores and then fading away. Mycelium is becoming a material that has numerous applications. Companies like Ecovative, Krown, and Symbiotec are looking at mycelium as a replacement for other forms of packaging, in their case as a composite with hemp. The aim is to have a completely biodegradable alternative to plastic-based products like Styrofoam. Mycelium packaging can be grown at room temperature and uses 12 per cent of the energy of plastic. IKEA has been using mushroom packaging materials since 2019, a “small yet significant step towards reducing waste and conserving ecological balance”, as IKEA’s head of sustainability, Joanna Yarrow, noted. In life, mushroom packaging resembles a hardened pale grey mulch, surprisingly light and somehow pleasant and fuzzy to the touch.

Designers are also looking to mycelium as a new material for filling the spaces we live in. The wave of interest echoes the way plastic was embraced in the 1960s as an egalitarian futuristic pop option. Clearly this space-age fascination has backfired. Sebastian Cox and Ninela Ivanova collaborated on mycelium stools and hanging lampshades, with a rather raw almost untreated leather-like aesthetic. Furniture designer Tom Butterfield, at the bequest of Tom Dixon, designed, modelled, and produced a fibre-glass mould of the chair, which was then sent to Symbiotec to produce. Over two weeks, an amalgam of mycelium and agricultural waste was grown in the mould, and the result was a prototype chair echoing the curves and futurism of Johanson’s iconic Comet chairs or Eero Aarnio’s Ball chair.

Sebastian Cox x Ninela Ivanova mycelium lamps. Photography Petr Krejci

Architects are also considering fungi for new ideas for building, notoriously one of the worst industries for environmental waste. There are numerous different mycelial bricks out there, but few resemble the beauty of Mae-ling Lokko’s geometric objects. The Ghanaian-Filipino architectural scientist’s research focuses on the use of agro-waste and biopolymer materials, and by extension how this can impact social and cultural life. Her work has been exhibited at the Liverpool Biennial, Serpentine Gallery, and Luma Foundation, Arles. Putting her work in an art context was an intentional way of changing how people imagine using materials. Her works are often made collaboratively, including getting her audience and children to grow bricks. As she has pointed out, “My whole thinking has been about fostering academic-industrial collaborations, and for me, that has accelerated the development of these materials in lots of ways.”

Mycologists like Paul Stamets are researching the practical application of fungi as replacement for toxic chemicals. News headlines have enthused about fungi’s ability to eat plastic, to clean oil spills, and to replace toxic pesticides. Most recently, NASA scientists have discovered new possibilities for fungi feeding on radiation at Chernobyl. First discovered in 1991, Cryptococcus neoformans could protect astronauts from space radiation. “If you have a material that can act as a shield against radiation, it could not only protect people and structures in space but also have very real benefits for people here on Earth,” JB Cordero, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University has explained.

Mushrooms may also have the possibility of saving our mental health. A recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics and the psychoactive element in some fungi, psilocybin, has led to it being used very successfully in trials as a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals to treat chronic depression, anxiety, and addiction. Even the world of business is paying attention. Peter Thiel, the controversial venture capitalist who helped launch Facebook, has invested billions of dollars in “magic mushroom” biotech company Atai Life Sciences.

Sebastian Cox x Ninela Ivanova mycelium stool. Photography Petr Krejci

The immensely complicated structure of mycelium is not unlike the human brain. In addition to providing possibilities on a practical scale, mushrooms also point to new ways of thinking, something Merlin Sheldrake considers in his lauded book Entangled Life. “We’re not just talking about the natural world as it appears to us in our objectifying natural sciences. We’re talking about our relationship to the natural world,” Sheldrake told me. “About how the natural world appears to us and how we form relationships with it. We can’t we talk much about relationships and symbiosis without accounting for the fact that we ourselves are also in relationship with the world. We’re dealing with the realm of human experience.”

Sheldrake’s work highlights how the microbial fungal world enables us to rethink how we exist in our everyday lives. Mushrooms have become a metaphor for symbiosis – the need to live in harmony with different species, different contexts. It’s an idea that has political resonance, especially with the increasing political shift to the individualist and far right. In 2019, scientists mapped the underground micro-ecosystem of the ancient redwood forests of California. They discovered that forest fungi formed a kind of communication system between the trees, sharing information and nutrients between them.

The so-called ‘wood wide web’ is just one example of how fungi, which are in fact closer to animals than plants, enable the natural world to exist. Ninety per cent of plants rely on them to live. Without fungi all ecosystems would fail. They are a fundamental part of the human microbiome. Many fungi are under threat through deforestation. We should not be asking if mushrooms can save the world, but rather realise that without fungi there would be no world at all.

This article is taken from Port issue 29. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here