Photo: Futurium / Art Lab

Out of the Woods

Mind the fungi

Fungi are divisive. People either love them or don't like them. Yet fungi are far stranger than we may think. While most people simply treat them as vegetables or as some mould on cheese, mushrooms, lichen, moulds, and spores are far more versatile, diverse, and downright alien than most of us could even imagine. And they are far more useful when you throw some lateral thinking into the mix.

Photo: Futurium / Art Lab

Mysterious All-Rounders

Let’s start with some facts. Strictly speaking, fungi are neither animals nor plants, but form their own kingdom in the family tree of life. At the time of this exhibition, around 120,000 different types of fungi, from chanterelle mushroom to slime mould and baker’s yeast, have been identified, and counting.

Experts estimate that their total number might exceed six million species. What we throw on the grill is only the visible ‘fruit’ of a large underground network that is vital for the soil. Unlike ordinary plants, fungi do not perform photosynthesis. They draw their nutrients from dead or living organisms and play an important role in decomposition. What’s more, they are potentially immortal and found almost everywhere in staggering numbers: a mere square metre of natural woodland usually harbours a billion fungus mycelia (mushroom tissue) and spores.

Hidden potential

“Fungi play a key role in nature. Most trees and plants enter into mutual relationships (symbioses) with fungi to survive”, explain Christian de Lutz and Regine Rapp of the Art Laboratory Berlin. The two curators are also interested in the many intriguing fungal characteristics that could massively boost the sustainability of our industries. “We’re all aware of the problems caused by plastics in the environment. Biodegradable mushroom-based products are already starting to replace Styrofoam as packaging material. Other companies are using fungi to develope alternative leather products, i.e. ‘vegan leather’.”

Learning from nature is worthwhile: In biotechnology, fungi have been producing citric acid, antibiotics, cholesterol reducers, insulin, pigments, vitamins and much more as 'cell factories' for 100 years, which have made our everyday lives easier and have enormously improved our chances of survival in a serious bacterial infectious disease, says fungal biotechnologist Prof. Vera Meyer from the TU Berlin.

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In petri dishes cultivated biomaterials can be turned into a wide variety of products from mycelium bricks and furniture to animal-friendly leather.

Photo: Futurium / Art Lab Berlin

Mushrooms are not only real beneficials. They can also be bad pathogens for humans, animals and useful plants – a textbook example is the Great Famine in Ireland because of Phytophthora infestans – even if the oomycetes are no longer counted as real mushrooms today. There are many other examples, but this has had extreme consequences, as the population of Ireland has not yet reached the level before the famine.

Research, Up Close

At the same time, Citizen Science plays an increasingly important role in researching these fascinating and helpful organisms. To engage people, a playful and artistic approach does not hurt as Mind the Fungi proves with a range of hands-on talks, workshops, lab visits and exhibitions. The collaborative research project set up with the Institute for Biotechnology of the TU Berlin (Prof. Vera Meyer & Prof. Peter Neubauer) and the Art Laboratory Berlin (Regine Rapp & Christian de Lutz) allows anyone to experience the many facets of fungi up close.

Prof. Vera Meyer deliberately narrowed the focus a little. “Fungal technology is a very broad area. Mind The Fungi focuses on multi-celled bracket fungi (tree mushrooms) that are great for creating strong materials. We cultivate and collect mycelium in the TU Berlin labs and then examine its material properties. Here, scientists collaborate with designers on new potential applications of these materials.”

Going Postal

To really experience the world of fungi, bio and media artist Theresa Schubert invites interested citizens to join her in the Berlin and Brandenburg countryside and rediscover the forest with new eyes. Together, the group gathers bracket fungi and lichen samples for preservation and cultivation. In the laboratories of the Institute of Biotechnology at the TU Berlin, interested parties will then learn directly with the scientists Bertram Schmidt and Carsten Pohl how samples are prepared in Petri dishes for cultivation. The resulting biomaterials can be turned into a wide variety of products from mycelium bricks and furniture to animal-friendly leather.

To put their research to the test, participants want to post a mycelium-wrapped package to see how the material would hold up under real-life conditions. “We’ve gotten so much enthusiasm from the participants of our public projects“, de Lutz adds. “Their creativity even surprised our scientists: Citizen Science in action!“

Creativity Thrives in the Lab

At the same time, Rapp and de Lutz also want to enrich scientific research with impulses from art and design. “We have always seen the power of art, especially when it comes to developing new formats.

Artists have a unique way of thinking and use different processes than scientists, but when both come together and exchange insights and ideas, everybody benefits. Citizen Science involves the public in this knowledge-sharing process and helps to rekindle their passion for the world around us, our environment, and the future.” Fara Peluso, one of Mind the Fungi’s artists-in-residence, works at the intersection of art, design and, science to speculate on how we can develop a more conscious way of dealing with the ecological systems around us. She starts with algae and other biomaterials.

Research You Can Touch and Feel

At Futurium, Mind the Fungi demonstrates the entire process ranging from gathering mushrooms to their isolation and cultivation in the lab, all the way to new fungus-based products. Here, visitors can examine the leather-like properties of Designer Nina Fabert’s novel material with their own hands. They can also check out extremely lightweight tiles produced by Ecovative, a material that has already caught the eye of companies such as Dell and Ikea. So, are Mind the Fungi on the right track?

Scientists at the renowned Smithsonian Institution certainly think so. In their opinion, the humble fungus might be the material of the future with the potential to replace anything from plastics to traditional building materials in a way that’s naturally eco-friendly and biodegradable.