The flimsy mushrooms served atop your burger or the delicate, bouncy mushroom caps adorning logs in the forest are not known for their strength or tough exteriors. New research suggests that Fomes fomentarius is the fungal cousin of their mushroom, and could be used to produce new materials to replace plastic. This horse-shaped fungal fungi is found all over the globe and can be seen glomming onto trees’ damaged bark as a pathogen. F. fomentarius is a long-standing source of tinder, and even plant-based leather. However, a group of Finnish researchers has discovered that the resilient fungi could be a pathway to bio-derived plastics that can mimic its structure.
The unique traits of F. fomentarius make it a potential source of inspiration to create multifunctional materials that have superior properties and can be used in a variety of industrial and medical applications. It could be used to design rugged products like body armor, exoskeletons for aircraft, or surface coatings for windshields, according to a press release.
“There is a huge variety of solutions to different material engineering problems in nature, and not all of them have yet been properly explored,” Pezhman Mohammadi, a senior author on the paper and scientist at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, told Motherboard in an email. “We were interested in the origin of the good material properties of the Fomes fomentarius fungus.”
Research into the application of F. fomentarius may be fresh, but the study of fungi components like mycelium–a network of fungal threads–or chitin, which is a component of fungi cell walls, are well underway. Mycelium has been examined for potential use as a building material on Earth , and chitin for potential use as a building materials on Mars .. To determine how F. fomentarius can remain light yet strong enough not to be knocked over by forest debris, the researchers employed chemical and mechanical analysis tools such as infrared spectrumcopy and X-ray difffraction to examine the inside of the fungus and determine its construction. Their findings were published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
The team’s analysis revealed that the fungus is composed of three layers. The hard outer crust and the foam-like layer known as ‘context’ are the two main components. A section of hollow tubes, called Hymenophore tubes, which are tightly packed, was discovered by the researchers (H. tubes).
Despite all three layers being largely composed of mycelium and other similar chemical components, the difference in microstructure and density of the layers creates distinct mechanical properties. Mohammadi stated that this characteristic is important because it illustrates how minor changes to fungus-inspired materials can create different properties, without the need to develop new materials.
Another uncommon feature the team uncovered while studying the fungus was its ability to remain lightweight while still providing strength on par with much heavier materials.
“To increase the strength of materials, compromises usually have to be made, for example by increasing the density,” Mohammadi said. “[Yet] When comparing F. fomentarius structure’s material properties, consider their lightness in comparison to wood or hard plastic. For example, hymenophore tubes are comparable in strength to wood, but are much lighter than wood.”
A crucial first step towards a mushroom-coated future will be for scientists to understand how the fruiting body–the part of the fungus we can see–is created from spores. Right now, this hasn’t yet been studied under laboratory conditions.
Until then Mohammadi is hopeful that the new discoveries will continue to spark interest in living material like fungi.
“Collaboration will allow these discoveries to be used to develop, for example, the next generation of programmable materials capable of sensing, learning, self-repairing and adapting to different situations,” he said.
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