Mushrooms as Tough as Leather
Working professionally with mushrooms tends to be the domain of mycologists and chefs. But Phil Ross is developing a new discipline inspired by fungi: mushroom materials science. He and his team at the San Francisco start-up MycoWorks toyed with the lattice-like “roots” of mushrooms, called mycelium, and have learned how to turn the living organism into a substance as tough and pliable as leather, or as rigid as wood. Ross also dreams of growing solar panels and cell phones from a fungus-based substrate—he just needs to convince the rest of the world. Science Friday’s Chau Tu talks about that project, the subject of her latest article, and of a Macroscope video.
Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.
IRA FLATOW: It’s that time of the year. Leather weather. Time to bust out those leather jackets to beat that nip in the air. Right? But how about an alternative? Something that would make you into a truly “fungi.” And I’m talking about a mushroom leather jacket.
And mushroom leather. Yeah, it’s possible. A leather jacket made from mushrooms. Our future may be made of fungi.
Here to talk about that, the subject of her latest article on sciencefriday.com, is Chau Tu, Science Friday story producer and reporter for the web. And there is a Macroscope video about mushroom leather, too, up on our website at sciencefriday.com/mushroom. I’m telling you, you don’t want to miss this mini-feature up there.
Welcome, Chau. Good to see you again. I don’t think anybody’s ever heard of mushroom leather before.
CHAU TU: No. I think this a pretty new concept. But I think it might be something in the future that we may come across more often.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us, what is mushroom leather? Whether it is made out of pure mushrooms.
CHAU TU: So this is not the fruiting part of the mushroom that you’re used to eating, like on top of pizza or whatever. This is actually the part of the mushroom called the mycelium. So that’s the root-like part of the mushroom that grows onto different substrates, like wood or sawdust and corn cobs.
It’s very fibrous. It’s threadlike. It grows exponentially. And what’s really great about mycelium is that you can manipulate it into different shapes and different textures as it grows.
So one thing you can do is, you can feed it different stuff. Or you can change the humidity or the temperature of the growing environment. And that sorts of molds it to different sorts of shapes and everything.
And so with this company, what they’re doing is, they’re creating a leather-like material using mycelium. And at this point, the company, in just two weeks, they can grow a sheet of mycelium that’s 27 square feet. So that’s comparable to a big cow.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. So I see from the video, it does look like a piece of cowhide. And it’s as tough and rough as cowhide, but it’s made by the stuff underground that the mushrooms grow.
CHAU TU: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So it’s supposed to be pretty durable. They say that it’s stronger than synthetic leather, and it’s as strong as deerskin, but they’re still trying to test out its wear and tear and how long it can last.
IRA FLATOW: So you mentioned a company called MycoWorks. And we actually visited?
CHAU TU: Yeah. So we got a video. I’m talking to the CTO, who is Phil Ross. And he’s the person who created this leather-like material.
So Phil Ross, he’s actually an artist. And he started out also as a chef for a couple years. And that’s when he started to learn about mushrooms and how to grow them. And then he started making art out of the mycelium.
So he was starting to make this building material, these bricks. And he started creating chairs and different sorts of structures. So people started really getting interested in what else this material could be used for. And so that’s when he started MycoWorks.
So at this point, MycoWorks has made things like synthetic wood, furniture and other things. And Ross actually has this pretty big vision for where this stuff could go beyond leather.
So we have a clip from Luke’s Macroscope video. It’s up right now on sciencefriday.com.
PHIL ROSS: My hope is that this will become a globalized industry. That well beyond my lifetime, or even what MycoWorks is setting up, that this will just become a standard way that human beings are going to figure out how to provide for themselves. Eventually you will be growing your solar panels and telephones and other types of things like that out of fungus-based substrate.
To me that is why I’m pursuing them. I have witnessed it and I know it as a truth. So I’m following that truth. But in the meantime, we welcome all of the vegan biker gangs to come and find us.
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Vegan biker gangs.
CHAU TU: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Stuff that– it really is as durable as leather for bikers?
CHAU TU: Yeah, we’ll see. Maybe we’ll see that out on the road soon. [LAUGHS]
IRA FLATOW: You said it was as strong as deerskin.
CHAU TU: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. But what if I get it wet? Right? It’s made out of a material that feels like leather, but will it repel water?
CHAU TU: Yeah. It’s supposed to be water-resistant. And it’s actually naturally antibiotic as well. So yes, it should stand up to some stuff.
IRA FLATOW: But we don’t know because it’s not really commercially available on a wide scale. We don’t know what it’s going to cost.
CHAU TU: No, not yet. Yeah. It’s not available yet. They’re still working with designers to sort of figure out what kind of leather material these designers want to make. Like, you can make bags or shoes or leather jackets. So it could be out there pretty soon.
IRA FLATOW: We will not call it nauga-anything. [LAUGHS] We need to find up a new name for it. Right? MycoWorks. Thank you, Chau.
Chau Tu is Science Friday’s story producer and reporter for the web. You can read her feature and see the Macroscope video. It is a mind blower. It’s on our website. It’s sciencefriday.com/mushroom.
Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.