Fabulous Fungi


Aug 21, 2014 by British Blog

Think of fungi and what springs to mind? For most people, the answer is mushrooms. What have mushrooms ever done for mankind? Well, they make wonderful omelettes and taste great with bacon, but other than that... perhaps not much. Or so most people would say.

In fact, little could be further from the truth. Fungi are becoming increasingly recognised as offering potentially planet-saving options in a range of settings and industries, and this is generating excitement worldwide. So what does this group, which includes yeasts and moulds, have to offer humans and the environment?



Believe it or not, fungi and humans have much in common. Both are subject to attack by bacteria and viruses, and one result of this is that fungi generate many natural antibiotics that are useful to humans. Now, scientists are exploring the use of fungi against other viruses and bacteria, and have had some very promising results. It seems that fungi show particular promise against a range of flu viruses, including avian flu. 



Perhaps the most promising aspect of fungi is their production of mycelium, which is the vegetative part of a fungus. Mycelium spreads rapidly through the soil or other medium in which the fungus grows, sending out a huge and intricate network of fibres that knit closely together and look like very fine, intertwined root growth. Such fibres can stretch to hundreds of miles. In nature, mycelium has many uses, including that of spreading nutrients between neighbouring plants (not just the fungi it stems from) and of binding soil together.

The biggest living organism on Earth is a mat of mycelium in Oregon, USA.

Recently, manufacturers have begun to use mycelium in the production of packaging materials and even household objects. This is done by placing a growth medium, such as the by-products of food production (oat and nut waste are often used) into a shaped mould. The mycelium is added to this and over time - usually a matter of days - it binds the growth medium so tightly that it takes on the shape of the mould and is ready to be used in packaging or wherever else it is needed. The resulting product, which is entirely biodegradable and compostable, is already being used to replace plastics; which, in contrast, hang around polluting the earth for thousands of years after being thrown away.



Yeast, another form of fungus, can be used to make a cellulose fabric suitable for the production of clothes and shoes. The fabric can be shaped by wetting and draping it over a shaped form: as the cellulose dries, it takes on that form. Although the fabric currently has limitations (it is not waterproof, for example), if these can be overcome the process will offer a cost-effective and sustainable option for clothing production. Even if the cellulose material remains water-absorbent, it still shows potential for use in interiors, for example as furniture and interior decoration items.

So the next time a local supermarket offers a huge discount on mushrooms it may be worth stopping for a second to wonder, is the humble fungus, which everybody seems to take for granted, actually one of humankind's greatest assets