A Lecture By A Fun Guy

Many people hear “fungus” and think of mushrooms. This is akin to hearing “trees” and thinking of apples. Fungus makes up 2% of earth’s total biomass or 10% of the non-plant biomass, and ranges from the deadly to the delicious. This lecture by [Justin Atkin] of [The Thought Emporium] is slightly shorter than a college class period but is like a whole semester’s worth of tidbits, and the lab section is about growing something (potentially) edible rather than a mere demonstration. The video can also be found below the break.

Let’s start with the lab where we learn to grow fungus in a mason jar on purpose for a change. The ingredient list is simple.

  • 2 parts vermiculite
  • 1 part brown rice flour
  • 1 part water
  • Spore syringe

Combine, sterilize, cool, inoculate, and wait. We get distracted when cool things are happening so shopping around for these items was definitely hampered by listening to the lecture portion of the video.

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Growing Your Own Insulation

The latest craze in revolutionary materials science is no longer some carbon nanotube, a new mysterious alloy, or biodegradeable plastic. It seems as though a lot of new developments are coming out of the biology world, specifically from mycologists who study fungi. While the jury’s still out on whether or not it’s possible to use fungi to build a decent Star Trek series, researchers have in fact been able to use certain kinds of it to build high-performing insulation.

The insulation is made of the part of the fungus called the mycelium, rather than its more familiar-looking fruiting body. The mycelium is a strand-like structure of fungus which grows through materials in order to digest them. This could be mulch, fruit, logs, straw, crude oil, or even live insects, and you might have noticed it because it’s often white and fuzzy-looking. The particular type of mycelium used here is extremely resistant to changes in temperature so is ideal for making insulation. As a bonus, it can be grown, not manufactured, and can use biological waste products as a growing medium. Further, it can grow to fit the space it’s given, and it is much less environmentally harmful than existing forms of insulation.

As far as performance is concerned, a reporter from the BBC tested it in an interesting video involving a frozen chocolate bar and a blowtorch, discovering also that the insulation is relatively flame-retardant. Besides insulation, though, there are many more atypical uses of fungi that have been discovered recently including pest control and ethanol creation. They can also be used to create self-healing concrete.

Thanks to [Michael] for the tip!

Photo of fungal mycelium: Tobi Kellner [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Cyborg Mushrooms

Of all the fictional cyborgs who turn against humanity to conquer the planet, this is as far from that possibility as you can get. These harmless mushrooms seem more interested in showing off their excellent fashion sense with a daring juxtaposition of hard grid lines with playful spirals. But the purpose of this bacteria-fungus-technology hybrid is to generate electricity. The mushrooms are there to play nurse to a layer of cyanobacteria, the green gel in the photo, while the straight black lines harvest electricity.

Cyanobacteria do not live very long under these kinds of conditions, so long-term use is out of the question, but by giving the cyanobacteria somewhere it can thrive, the usefulness grows. The interplay between bacterial and supportive organics could lead to advances in sensors and hydrogels as well. At some point, we may grow some of our hardware and a green thumb will be as useful as a degree in computer science.

Hydrogels could be the next medical revolution, and we’ve already made hydrogels into tattoos, used them as forms for artificial muscles, and hydrogels can be a part of soft tissue printing.

Biologic Additive May Lead to Self-Healing Concrete

If you get a cut or break a bone, your body heals itself. This everyday miracle is what inspired [Congrui Jin] to try to find a way to make concrete self-healing. The answer she and her colleagues are working on might surprise you. They are adding fungus to concrete to enable self-repair.

It isn’t just any fungus. The conditions in concrete are very harsh, and after testing twenty different kinds, they found that one kind — trichoderma reesei — could survive inside concrete as spores. This fungus is widespread in tropical soil and doesn’t pose any threat to humans or the ecology. Mixing nutrients and spores into concrete is easy enough. When cracks form in the concrete, water and oxygen get in and the spores grow. The spores act as a catalyst for calcium carbonate crystals which fill the cracks. When the water is gone, the fungi go back to spores, ready to repair future cracking.

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Moldy Rechargeable Batteries

What’s worse than coming in from the workbench for a sandwich only to discover that the bread has molded? That red bread mold–Neurospora crassa–can transform manganese into a mineral composite that may improve rechargeable batteries, according to a recent paper in Current Biology.

Researchers used the carbonized fungal biomass-mineral composite in both lithium ion cells and supercapacitors. The same team earlier showed how fungi could stabilize toxic lead and uranium. Mold, of course, is a type of fungus that grows in multi-cellular filaments. Apparently, the fungal filaments that form are ideal for electrochemical use of manganese oxide. Early tests showed batteries using the new material had excellent stability and exceeded 90% capacity after 200 discharge cycles.

The team plans to continue the use of fungus in various metallurgical contexts, including recovering scarce metal elements. This is probably good news for [Kyle]. This is quite an organic contrast to the usual news about graphene batteries.

Image: Qianwei Li and Geoffrey Michael Gadd