Creating leather-like goods from fungus

Working professionally with mushrooms tends to be the domain of mycologists and chefs, but a San Francisco bay startup called MycoWorks is toying with the latus like roots of mushrooms called mycelium to turn the living organism into a substance as tough and pliable as leather or as rigid as wood.


Working professionally with mushrooms tends to be the domain of mycologists and chefs, but a San Francisco-based start-up called MycoWorks is toying with the lattice-like roots of mushrooms, called mycelium, to turn the living organism into a substance as tough and pliable as leather or as rigid as wood.

'Science Friday' has the story.

The lowly mushroom... a primordial growth sprouting from decay... perhaps a tiny morsel... or deadly distraction.

But look deeper.

We may find the humble fungus has much to provide.

As a designer and a thinker about form and space, they're fascinating.

You can witness a living fractal in how it behaves to the environment.

They can take our greatest resource, which is human waste, and turn that into something that's really valuable for us.

They have the ability to give us everything that we want.

This is Philip Ross, and he's the Chief Technology Officer of the San Francisco-based start-up MycoWorks, a company seeking to harness the powers of fungus...

It can go on to replace so many aspects of our generated world right now that we extract from things that can't be regenerated.

...things that seem obvious upon reflection.

So, this -- this -- this strange background behind me is actually the hide or the skin of a type of mushroom -- Ganoderma lucidum.

This is a traditional type of fungus that has been used in medicine in Asia for millennia that we grew at MycoWorks.

And this behaves and acts a lot like animal skin.

So, this is really the starting point, is imagining it as leather.

This takes two weeks.

It's crazy. [ Laughs ] Mushrooms grow at an exponential rate, so it's more, how fast can we keep up with the organism?

By comparison, a piece of cowhide the same size takes two years to grow.

And that takes a lot of resources, and a lot of food and a lot of time to create that animal for our use.

Our materials start off as agricultural waste -- corn cobs, hemp hurds, paper-pulp waste, rice hulls, sawdust.

So, all these bags of white stuff behind me -- that's the mushroom that is eating the sawdust.

This is the last bit of sawdust, and you can see the encroaching network of cells that are all coming around that.

These cells are known as mycelium.

Mushroom mycelium is the root-like fibers that grow underground that are part of a mushroom.

It's out of these colonies of mycelium that specialized tissues can bloom.

In this thing, you know, has the diversity of types of materials that you ultimately can create, things that look like they're enameled, that look like insect skin, and things that are very hard, things that are kind of soft and leathery, things that are porous.

And all these really different expressions of the organism are all part of the same thing.

And by manipulating various conditions, you can transform mycelium from the its basic state.

We give the mushroom types of food that it might like or dislike.

And then the other things we do is manipulate its immediate environment -- its temperature, the humidity levels, the amount of light, and then the exchange of gas.

And that's it.

It's a low-tech solution for creating what MycoWorks believes to be a more-than-perfect leather substitute.

For the consumer, it's gonna have benefits that will be unlike other things, that you're gonna have patterns and colors that would be impossible with actual animal hides and qualities that can be grown directly into it.

So, we can grow fasteners directly into ours.

You don't have to use glue, necessarily, or even seaming.

It is breathable.

Similar to animal leather, it's water-wicking, and it's naturally antibiotic.

This is without any chemistry added into it at all.

They've already created some stylish prototypes, but they're still testing various aspects of its production.

We've only been working with this material for about three months.

And so we've started first to test it for tensile strength.

In that time period, we've taken it from being as strong or stronger than lamb, sheep, and synthetic leather, and now we actually have it as strong as deerskin.

And while they're touting its strength, MycoWorks has no plans to stop at leather.

Another thing that these types of mushrooms here can make are, you know, kind of synthetic woods.

So, it's really hard.

This thing that started off as waste sawdust is able, you know, to crush a metal object.

How about furniture?

This chair that I'm sitting in -- the walnut legs are from salvaged wood.

And then we took sawdust, and then we transformed that with a local version of this mushroom to grow this chair.

To Philip Ross, the possibilities are endless.

My hope is that this will become a globalized industry, that well beyond my lifetime or even what MycoWorks is setting up, that this will just become a standard way that human beings are gonna figure out how to provide for themselves.

Eventually, you will be growing your solar panels and telephones and other types of things like that out of fungus-based substrate.

To me, that is why I keep on pursuing them.

I have witnessed it, and I know it is a truth, so I'm following that truth.

But in the meantime...

We welcome all the vegan biker gangs to come and find us.