Published July 30, 2013
Shrooms growing in your living room are bad -- but what about a living room grown from them?
Ecovative's mushroom-made materials run the gamut from furniture to an entire house, thanks to the power of mycelium -- essentially fungus, the unseen underground part of a mushroom, which looks like a network of thin white strands. The company’s homegrown housewares are water- and fire-resistant, and unlike plastic and Styrofoam, they are entirely biodegradable, explained co-founder Gavin McIntyre.
“We grew chairs,” McIntyre told FoxNews.com. “We grew a house.” Ecovative built the sample structure from pine wood and poured the fungal mix inside the wall cavity, where it grew as a natural insulation.
McIntyre says the fungal flat is self-repairing -- if a tree fell on the house, the wall would have to be rebuilt, but the insulation would grow back by itself. It’s also self-protecting and has its own “immune system,” which prevents microorganisms from starting colonies within.
In nature, most mycelium grows underground; we only see and eat its fruit -- mushrooms -- without realizing the hidden web underneath. Ecologically, mycelium’s function is to break down waste, explained Stephen Horton, a biology professor at Union College, such as dead grass and decaying fruit.
“As it’s breaking down the plant material, it’s also secreting various products -- enzymes, lipids, proteins, which act as glue and hold things together,” Horton told FoxNews.com.
McIntyre and his friend Eben Bayer borrowed Mother Nature’s idea and ran with it. To grow fungal "ore," Ecovative inoculates natural byproducts such as seed hulls from rice, buckwheat and oats with mycelium. They steam-clean the mixture, add mycelium tissue culture, distribute the blend into molds, and let the fungus grow.
Left in the dark for a few days, the fungus digests the mix and binds its ingredients into a structural substance, shaped into whatever form McIntyre desires: wine shippers, boards or furniture, for example, all clean of such toxic chemicals as glues and lacquers.
“The material grows in the shape of the tool,” McIntyre said. “Then we pop it out and dry it.” Dehydrating and heat-treating is necessary to kill the fungi and stop its growth -- no one wants living furniture. Ecovative’s inventions are allergen-free because they use the non-allergic mycelium spawn instead of mushroom spores, which can cause allergies in some people.
The company evolved from McIntyre’s and Bayer’s undergraduate project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where they dual-majored in mechanical engineering and product design. Every semester they took a class called Inventor's Studio in which they were challenged to pick a pressing problem that faced the world and find a technological solution. They came up with the mushroom idea while they were working on a construction and insulation project in 2006.
“Eben made the observation while he was taking a stroll in the woods, that fungal mycelium was growing on the wood chips and holding them together,” McIntyre recalled. “The thought process was — can we use mycelium as growing glue?”
They got some farm produce leftovers, which were cheap and easy to find, bought mycelium tissue culture on the Internet, and started growing it in their apartments. “Mycelium needs a dark place to grow, so we were incubating it in closets and underneath our beds,” McIntyre explained.
The samples they grew benchmarked well against plastic, he said. During their senior year at Rensselaer they submitted their idea to various startup competitions and won several awards, including grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, The National Science Foundation, and a $350,000 prize from DOEN Foundation in the Netherlands.
Not all fungi are the same, according to Horton, who collaborates with Ecovative on researching the behavior of various mycelium strains. Different fungi growing on different substrates — the mixtures it consumes to proliferate — can yield products with diverse characteristics.
“We can get very elastic materials that bend or we can get them as hard as wood,” McIntyre says. The more durable concoctions can be used as automotive parts such as car bumpers, Horton says. Modern car bumpers are essentially hard blocks of Styrofoam made to absorb shock, so with the right combination of fungi and its food, it’s possible to grow automotive components of similar qualities, except that they would break down when exposed to the right microbes on the landfill.
Ecovative is also experimenting with a variety of other ideas as well, from marine buoy to shoe soles.
“You can imagine all sorts of different applications,” Horton said.