MycoWorks' mushroom leather. Credit: Science Friday
As it stands, the mushroom is a pretty multi-purpose organism: Aside from its ecological functions, it can be eaten as nourishment, brewed as tea, taken as a naturopathic remedy, and used in dyes. But a San Francisco start-up by the name of MycoWorks has even more plans for mushrooms, starting with a leather-like material made from the fungi.
More specifically, MycoWorks’ key ingredient is mycelium, the microscopic, root-like threads of a mushroom that latch onto and colonize different substrates. As a natural fiber, mycelium is particularly attractive because it can be grown and manipulated into myriad textures and shapes, according to Phil Ross, the chief technical officer at MycoWorks.
Fungi are very sensitive; they will change their growth in relationship to how they’re being poked and things like that, ” Ross says. “You put it in a cup, it would take the shape of a cup.”
Ross had a self-described “very strange journey” to becoming the main innovator at the young company. An artist and cook, Ross began collecting mushrooms in the late 1980s for the various kitchens he worked in, and later became inspired by the books of mushroom expert Paul Stamets to set up his own lab and clean room to grow fungi.
That’s when Ross began experimenting with mycelium. He found that, with enough prodding, he could coax it to grow into different formations, and that by adding organic chemicals at different stages of the growing process, he could change the look and feel of the resulting material. Working with mycelium is “like learning a cooking technique, ” he says.
As an art project, Ross constructed various architectural models of iconic metropolitan buildings out of mycelium. Companies that caught wind of his efforts then began approaching him, so Ross decided to start MycoWorks in 2013 with his friends Sophia Wang and Eddie Pavlu to contemplate mycelium’s possibilities.
Their first major project was creating bricks of engineered “wood” made from mushrooms, but the team found the construction market hard to break into. After various apparel makers showed interest in their work, however, Ross’s team found a way to reformat their material into a sheet akin to leather.
MycoWorks’ leather is made out of pure mycelium. The company primarily grows Ganoderma lucidum, also known as the reishi mushroom, a popular fungi in Asia that’s commonly used in natural remedies and teas. They chose this species “in part because it has this enormous written history around it—about its biosafeties [i.e., how it interacts with human skin], about its biochemistry, about its application for human consumption, ” Ross says.
“Because we are creating this brand new, novel type of material in the world, there’s a huge burden on MycoWorks as a company to prove the safety of this. So we’re going with what we know to be the safest and ubiquitously ingested fungus on the planet, ” he says.