Mushroom wonderland: A leap toward smart packaging materials

Protruding elegantly in the middle of green weeds stands Ganoderma lucidum. Its kidney-shaped umbrella cannot go unnoticed, especially in parts of the world where it has a unique white-yellow-brown look, almost like worn, varnished wood. In Asian countries, this fungus is traditionally used for promoting health and longevity, yet its benefits go way beyond well-being. Would you guess it can play a role in combating the packaging waste crisis? Indeed, its mycelium – the vegetative part of the fungus – is composed of fine white filaments that make up an interconnected network of elongated cells called hyphae. The complex cell wall of the hyphae, made of proteins and sugars, confer mechanical properties on the network that can be transposed to applications such as packaging. Pretty neat!

There is no doubt we need to find solutions to the plastic crisis. One in two marine turtles have eaten plastics, 90% of seabirds have plastics in their stomachs and around 7 million coffee cups are thrown away in the UK (only!) every day (ouch!)1. The good news is that scientific efforts can diminish, and in the best-case scenario, reverse the packaging waste footprint in the near future.

In my studies, I grow Ganoderma lucidumin the presence of specific substrates and the hyphae networks have their mechanical properties measured. For instance, if the substrate is potato-based fortified with a wood component, the fungus grows wider in surface in a month, but the mycelium becomes less dense and more brittle when compared to a simpler sugar substrate, namely glucose. Brittleness is an important feature to be considered for certain packaging applications. Now, when the substrate is carrot waste, only in few days, the mycelia can be grown to large sheets – fact that may be of interest to the paper industry down the line. Such paper sheets could represent indeed a leap toward a more sustainable choice in this particular industry.

From another perspective, we can, in part, decrease our own impact every time when confronted with this burning reality. Questions such as “Do I need this protection?”, “Can I go by without it?”, “Can I reuse it later?” or even “What is this package made of?” allow us to make more respectful environmental choices. Yet we need governments pushing policies and backing sustainable packing guidelines. Only major industry changes will be genuinely effective in decreasing the current crisis plastics has caused.

To finish on a hopeful note, the cool fact is that there are mycelium-based foams used to protect bottles already in the market today! More to come soon… hopefully sooner than later.

Being a scientist and able to tackle problems of such grandeur is rewarding. In my future career endeavors, I plan to dedicate time to science communication as well. Sound public awareness of scientific problems is of paramount importance for a change. I am Maria Elena Antinori, and I am a PhD candidate in Prof. Athanassia Athanassiou’s group at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, University of Genova. My work is funded by Italian and European grants.


Digital art

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso