Mycelium is the vegetative structure of fungi. Think of mycelium as the root system while the mushrooms are the fruits. However, we can also think of mycelium as a promising biodegradable material for fabrication. To get you started, researchers from the University of Colorado created a recipe book to cook with mycelium. We caught up with two team members (Fiona Bell and Farjana Ria Khan) to learn more.
Why a recipe book?
We wanted to encourage a diverse range of people, regardless of whatever social-political background or expertise, to explore eco-friendly design practices and bio-design by creating everyday items with mycelium.
In light of science becoming more inclusive, the publication makes an emphasis on diversity in creating the project. Can you say something about this process and outcomes?
Facilitating more diversity within the sciences enables better and more inclusive perspectives in the field. MyCo Domicilia is meant to mitigate social and experiential barriers for those who want to explore sustainable and eco-friendly design outside of a lab context. We frame our recipes as accessible and easy to replicate at home without requiring expensive equipment or materials. Along with its simplicity, the varying uses of the mycelium projects beyond practical scientific contexts are also meant to empower and inspire anyone and everyone to practice sustainable design.
We want to encourage a diverse range of people, regardless of whatever social-political background or expertise, to explore biodesign by creating everyday items with mycelium.
You portray mushrooms as a ‘domestic medium’. Please elaborate.
It’s domestic in the sense that mushrooms are a familiar, common, and accessible medium from everyday life, used in practices such as gardening and cooking. It’s also a sustainable material capable of being used to fabricate everyday household items from the comfort of your own home—creating the domestic, in the domestic, with the domestic.
What changes if everyone started growing mycelium in their backyards? Is it easy? — Can you give an example?
What changes is society embracing a more nuanced and empowering perspective on sustainable materials. Not many sustainable materials are easily within reach of everyday people (requiring specialized knowledge and/or expensive materials and equipment). However, for MyCo Domicilia we demonstrate that anybody of whatever background can take part in eco-friendly design in a non-costly, accessible, and easy manner—our entire team being unfamiliar with mycelium prior to creating mycelium artifacts in our own homes during the pandemic. We ultimately envision a future where people easily grow their own mycelium products, whenever they want, increasing overall sustainability and accessibility to eco-friendly materials.
We envision a future where people easily grow their own mycelium products, whenever they want.
How does one care for mycelium as an everyday material as opposed to its non-biodegradable alternatives?
The act of growing one's own material automatically instills an aspect of care that does not apply to manufactured materials that are purchased at stores. By having to nurture a material, one is more emotionally invested in the material itself and therefore the final object made from the material.
How to change the general perception of mycelium as a moldy fungi to that of a durable, sustainable material?
Mushrooms already have a household familiarity to them—from the kitchen to the garden to leisurely forest hikes. We wanted to create a dual perspective on mycelium as not just a domestic material found in these common places, but to also act as a vehicle for expression, experimentation, and creativity. In this light, we consider mycelium not as a foreign moldy fungi, but instead as a home staple with hidden, exciting, and novel capabilities that one can easily participate in.
We consider mycelium not as a foreign moldy fungi, but instead as a home staple with hidden, exciting, and novel capabilities that one can easily participate in.
In the age of biosynthesis, what shape does the idea of fabrication take in the project, considering that the mycelium material itself isn’t intrinsically modified?
We saw fabrication as an act of nurture—taking care of the mycelium so that it grows into our desired household objects. Therefore we do not aim to modify biomaterials, but to instead work with them, which takes into account mycelium’s autonomy as a unique, living organism.
In creating the products, we are still employing the use of silicone, rubber and plastics — can we ever reach a world that is independent of these materials?
We think it will be difficult to untangle our reliance on non-biodegradable materials; however, we mitigate this by pairing biodegradable materials with the practice of re-using non-biodegradable materials already at our disposal. For example, we used found items around the house as molds for the mycelium to grow in. Through this method, we give old non-biodegradable materials a second life, while also fabricating new sustainable objects from mycelium.
We do not aim to modify biomaterials, but to instead work with them.
What were some of the limitations your team faced while working with mycelium?
We ran into many challenges during our work with mycelium, the first and largest hurdle being the pandemic, which moved us out of our lab and into our homes. By being physically isolated from each other we had to re-learn how to communicate as a team. Moreover, we each had to become self-sufficient in growing our mycelium. These challenges led us to truly believe in the importance of creating an accessible recipe book for mycelium novices, as well as proving that mycelium can be successfully grown at home.
Some of the speculations the team has made, are already realities today. Can we envision an all-mycelium IKEA someday perhaps?
Why not! Mycelium is a wonderfully versatile and sturdy material, and there’s even been potential to make buildings out of mycelium as well, which trap less heat than concrete buildings. More so, we’d love to see sustainable materials as a whole embraced by greater society, and we want to do our part with MyCo Domicilia—representing the benefits, accessibility, and potential for more eco-friendly practices.
MyCo Domicilia was a part of the Biodesign Challenge 2020, an international competition between schools for transformative applications in biotech. This book is the University of Colorado at Boulder's submission for BDC2020 with their team comprising of a diverse group of women and PoC in design and engineering. Team members: Fiona Bell, Theresa Matick, Shenali Uragoda, Malika Rakhmonova, Farjana Ria Khan, and Arva Syed.