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Plastic-eating mushrooms

/2016.mb.com.ph

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Intriguing right? Who would’ve thought that the answer to some of our most distressing global conundrums may be mushrooms? Industrial Designer, Katharina Unger sure did, sparked by a recent discovery made by students from Yale in the great Amazon Rainforest.

The trip was part of the university’s Annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory—a unique course where students enrolled are given opportunities to explore diverse ecosystems of various forests, collect plant samples, and engage in full time research of their own design. While working on the samples retrieved from the most bio-diverse place on Earth, researchers at Yale were able to isolate a variety of mushroom (Pestalotiopsismicrospora) that is capable of breaking down a key component of plastic, polyurethane. These mushrooms were also found to survive in anaerobic environments, meaning they do not require oxygen in order to digest plastic; a useful trait in light of conditions at the bottom of a landfill.

 /2016.mb.com.ph

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This naturally (forgive the pun) caught a lot of buzz, the potential applications of this discovery are huge. An article by Michael J. Coren from fastcoexist.com even speculated that, “In the future, our trash compactors may simply be giant fields of voracious fungi.” But Katharina Unger’s vision aims to take it one step further with Fungi Mutarium, a means of growing food from the toxicity of plastic waste.

The prototype in its current state resembles the kind of furniture you might see in a sci-fi movie. On one side, you have the Fungi Nursery—a transparent bowl-shaped enclosure that curves under the tabletop. It holds a liquid nutrient solution of fungi sprouts called Macerate, which is extracted by inserting a pipette through a narrow opening on top, sealed shut by a stopper. On the other end of the table is the Growth Sphere—another transparent enclosure that curves over like a dome and is riddled by a number of narrow access nozzles. The small dome holds within a mound of specially designed agar (a seaweed based gelatin substitute). These agar eggs if you will (also called FUs), are mixed with starch and sugar to serve as nutrient base for the fungi. Temperature and humidity controls are also installed inside, these will enable the user to calibrate and experiment on the rate and quality of fungal growth. Below the Growth Sphere, protruding from underneath the tabletop, is the Activation Cylinder—where small bits of plastic are UV treated. Not only does UV light serve to sterilize, it also activates the plastic’s degradation process making it easier for the agar FUs to digest.

 /2016.mb.com.ph

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The prototype’s function flow is pretty straightforward; after creating the agar FUs, they are placed inside the Growth Sphere with pincers to keep the environment as sterile as possible. The base of each FU is specially designed to hold in place at optimal distances from the other agar eggs. UV-sterilized plastic bits are then placed inside the FU cavities, also with pincers. A pipette is then used to extract Macerate from the Fungi Nursery, and inserted through several access nozzles on the Growth Sphere’s dome to give a few droplets on each plastic-filled FU. The growth process is thus ignited and would take a couple of weeks to several months (depending on the plastic material and control settings) for the cultured fungi to grow and digest the plastic. The end result would show a white puffy growth called Mycelium enveloping the FU, plastic-free and ready to eat.

 /2016.mb.com.ph

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While the system is still a ways off from commercial use, Unger and her team remain focused on bringing this vision to everyone. She is currently partnered with fellow designer Julia Kaisinger and Utrecht University (one of the oldest Universities in the Netherlands) in optimizing the rate of fungal growth and plastic digestion. The taste, according to Unger, was quite neutral; but fear not, she had made steps to appease our taste buds by creating a number of recipes with her team. Wired.com mentioned chocolate filled FUs with yogurt (who wouldn’t want a piece of that?) noshed with specially made utensils called Fungi Cutlery (looking way slicker than it sounds).

And so the world waits in eager anticipation for The Fungi Mutarium; a promising innovation that if proven to be successful, would lift unimaginable weight off its shoulders.