That Styrofoam protecting your new flat-panel TV in its shipping box? It might soon be made of mushrooms. Not the ones you throw on your salad—those are the reproductive structures of fungi—but the underground networks of dental-floss-like “roots” called the mycelium.
Biologists at New York’s Union College have teamed up with a company called Ecovative Design to produce totally biodegradable packaging material that could replace expanded plastics, which are made from petrochemicals. Ecovative’s replacement is made of agricultural byproducts like cotton gin waste; seed hulls from rice, buckwheat and oats; and hemp or other plant materials that are glued together by growing a matrix of fungal mycelia around them.
The company is using several species of fungi to mix with the farming byproducts that can grow packaging in five days. Union biologist Steve Horton and his team are helping the company by isolating fungal strains that might speed up the production process.
“We manipulate one strain in various ways to see if we can make versions of the fungus to suit certain applications the company has in mind,” Horton said in a university announcement. “For example, it might be helpful if Ecovative has certain versions that grow faster.”