This Weird-Looking Fungus Could Be a Biodegradable Alternative to Plastic

The flammable fungus (incentive hungers) has some surprising properties, the scientists discovered: properties that could allow it to provide a natural, biodegradable alternative to certain plastics and other materials in the future.

As its name suggests, the wood-eating fungus has historically been used to catch a spark for fires, although it has also been incorporated into clothing and used for medicine.

It could now have a whole new level of usefulness as a biodegradable alternative to plastics, thanks to the way it f. mycelium is formed.

Composed of thin filaments known as hyphae, mycelium forms root-like networks that spread through soil or decaying material. In the case of the flammable fungus, this network can be divided into three distinct layers, says the team from research institutions in Finland, the Netherlands and Germany.

“Mycelium is the major component in all layers,” the researchers write in their published paper. “However, within each layer, the mycelium exhibits a very distinct microstructure with unique preferred orientation, aspect ratio, density and branch length.”

The researchers analyzed the structural and chemical composition of the fruiting body of f., using samples collected in Finland. Mechanical strength tests were combined with detailed scans of the fungus to examine its characteristics in detail, revealing three layers: a hard, thin outer crust surrounding a frothy layer underneath, and stacks of hollow tubular structures in the core.

layers of fungus
The ultra-architecture of f. used in this study. (Pylkännen et al., advances in science2023)

Parts of the fungus were as strong as plywood, pine or leather, the team reports – as well as being lighter than those materials. It’s a combination not usually associated with the fleshy part of a fungus like this.

The researchers found the hollow tubes, which make up most of the f. fruiting bodies, can withstand forces greater than the foamy layer, all without suffering large displacements or deformations.

However, perhaps not so surprising: this fungus must be built to withstand the rigors of changing seasons, much like tree branches falling from above. That’s the kind of toughness that can inspire new synthetic materials.

Typically, stronger, stiffer materials are also heavier and denser – but not in this case.

“What is extraordinary is that, with minimal changes in their cellular morphology and extracellular polymeric composition, they formulate diverse materials with distinct physicochemical performances that outperform most natural and man-made materials, which are often confronted by trade-offs. property,” write the researchers.

“We believe the findings should appeal to a broad materials science audience and beyond.”

The fungus F. fomentius already plays a key role in nature, as it clings to dead trees and releases important nutrients that would otherwise remain in the bark. Now it can be even more useful in the field of materials science.

Exactly how and where this fungus could be used remains to be determined, but understanding its layers is an important step: we now know how it is built at the cellular level.

It is part of a growing body of research into the potential of living materials, using living cells in a controlled and programmed way to achieve certain end results – which in this case would be specific types of materials.

“These results may offer a great source of inspiration for the production of multifunctional materials with superior properties for diverse medical and industrial applications in the future,” write the researchers.

The research was published in advances in science.

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