January 19, 2020
Moonshrooms: How Fungi Could Shape Life on Mars
Rainbow mushrooms growing in spaceSource: GIPHY
NASA recently announced they’re exploring new, green ways to sustain human life in outer space through the help of our beloved fungal friends: mushrooms, or rather, their mycelia.
“Science fiction often imagines our future on Mars and other planets as run by machines, with metallic cities and flying cars rising above dunes of red sand,” NASA wrote in an article last Tuesday. “But the reality may be even stranger – and ‘greener.’ Instead of habitats made of metal and glass, NASA is exploring technologies that could grow structures out of fungi to become our future homes in the stars, and perhaps lead to more sustainable ways of living on Earth as well.”
The quest to grow habitats on the surface of the our neighboring planets and moons, the myco-architecture project, has been using fungi to prototype self-replicating and self-healing habitats that can withstand the harsh conditions of outer space.
“The fibrous material is fungal mycelium, the vegetative structure of fungi consisting of branching, thread-like hyphae,” wrote Lynn Rothschild, the principal investigator on the early-stage project in a 2018 NASA article. “Mycelial materials, already commercially produced, are known insulators, fire retardant, and do not produce toxic gasses.”
In the article, Rothschild explains that mycelial materials are stronger than lumber and have more bend strength than reinforced concrete.
“A mycotectural building envelope could significantly reduce the energy required for building because in the presence of food stock and water it would grow itself,” Rothschild continues. “After the arrival of humans, additional structures could be grown with feedstock of mission-produced organic waste streams.”
Additionally, Rothschild says that melanin-rich fungi are capable of absorbing radioactivity, which suggests they could provide radiation protection.
What the Fungus
Clusters of fly agaric and common mushrooms growing in the wildSource: Pexels
When you hear the word fungus, a large red speckled mushroom or a cluster of brown common mushrooms are probably the first images that come to mind.
However, the word embodies a wide variety of species, as NASA describes.
“A fungus is a group of organisms that produces spores and eats up organic material, like the yeasts in bread or beer, the mushrooms in your salad, the mold that may grow if you let that salad sit in the refrigerator for too long or even the organisms that produce antibiotics like penicillin,” NASA writes.
A Bit About Mycelia
Mycelium is the vegetative and fungal compound found in mushrooms, according to 2017 Nature study. It’s porous, durable, flexible, and one of the largest living organisms on Earth.
Additionally, mycelium can used for producing a wide variety of material, “from plastics to plant-based meat to scaffolding for growing organisms,” reports a 2019 Scientific American article.
Various studies have also demonstrated the communicative properties of mycelia, including a 2013 Ecology Letters study where signals carried through mycelium networks warned neighboring plants of an insect attack.
The strength of mycelia and the diverse conditions in which various fungi can thrive show promise as a sustainable way to pursue life beyond our atmosphere.
“These tiny [mycelia] threads build complex structures with extreme precision, networking out into larger structures like mushrooms,” NASA explains. “With the right conditions, they can be coaxed into making new structures – ranging from a material similar to leather to the building blocks for a Mars habitat.”
How to Grow Moonshrooms
“Could planetary habitats be fabricated with fungi?”Source: Self-replicating, Self-repairing Planetary Habitats Made of Fungus | NASA 360
For mycelia to thrive on the moon or on Mars, it’ll require a way to eat and breathe.
“That’s where something called cyanobacteria comes in – a kind of bacterium that can use energy from the Sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and fungus food,” NASA writes. “These pieces come together in an elegant habitat concept with a three-layered dome. The outer-most layer is made up of frozen water ice, perhaps tapped from the resources on the Moon or Mars. That water serves as a protection from radiation and trickles down to the second layer – the cyanobacteria.”
The cyanobacteria will then be able to take water from the first layer and photosynthesize the sunlight that shines through the ice to provide oxygen for the astronauts and nutrients for the mycelia inside.
“That last layer of mycelia is what organically grows into a sturdy home, first activated to grow in a contained environment and then baked to kill the lifeforms – providing structural integrity and ensuring no life contaminates Mars and any microbial life that’s already there,” NASA continues.
Furthermore, NASA says they have genetically modified the fungi to ensure that if any mycelia were to escape the habitat, it wouldn’t be able to spread throughout the surface of another planet and contaminate microbial life that may already exist there.
“We’re a very long way from being able to grow useable habitats for Mars, but the early-stage research is well underway to prove the potential of these creative solutions,” NASA says. “That work all starts with experimenting with fungi.”
A gif of a cartoon mushroom taking a strollSource: GIPHY
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