How fungi are helping us be more sustainable
Fungi don’t just grow as mould on your bread but can also be used to produce building materials, mushroom leather and meat substitutes. Professor of Fungal Genetics and Biotechnology Arthur Ram explains how fungi can help us be more sustainable.
Fungi can already produce leather and meat substitutes. And in the future they may help turn non-biodegradable waste into something useful and we will probably live in houses made from materials they produce. Things are moving fast with fungi in this ‘materials business’, says Ram. ‘A lot of companies are working on alternatives to polystyrene and packaging or building materials, for example.’
How does it work? Fungi can form hyphae (filaments). If you grow fungi on a straw substrate, for example, the hyphae network (the mycelium) can connect the straw fibres, causing a structure to develop. Press the straw into a mould and you can get fungi to make any shape you want.
Fungi produce cheese protein
Ram is not in the building materials business, however, but is researching with colleagues how to get fungi to sustainably produce animal proteins. He is looking specifically at casein, the most common protein in cheese. The ultimate goal is to make cheese with fungi-produced casein.
The challenge is to get the fungus to produce the casein because it does not do so naturally.
There are two big challenges to the research. The first is that the researchers have to get the fungus to produce casein because it does not do so naturally. By inserting a piece of DNA into the fungus, they can get it to produce the protein. The second is getting the fungus to produce casein efficiently because otherwise it won’t be interesting for larger-scale production. The protein also needs to end up outside the cell in the medium where the fungus grows. That makes it easier to collect the casein. Using state-of-the-art molecular genetic technologies, the researchers are working hard in the lab to improve the Aspergillus niger fungus as a protein factory.
Degradation of plastics
In the Leiden lab, Ram and his team are also working on using fungi to break down lignin. Lignin is a substance that makes trees and plants strong and flexible. It is also very difficult to break down. The only option now is to burn it. The researchers want to get fungi to produce enzymes that can break down lignin. If they succeed, it will be possible to make useful building blocks from lignin for bioplastics, for example.
The research is also interesting in terms of breaking down plastic. ‘Many plastics are somewhat similar in structure to lignin’, says Ram. ‘So there are examples where the enzyme that breaks down lignin can also break down plastic.’
Meet sustainability goals with fungi
Ram can see an important role for fungi in the future. ‘Fungi can help address at least ten of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. I even read someone recently claim that they can help with all 17 goals. Fungi and fungal biotechnology can at any rate help resolve many of the sustainability challenges that we are now facing.’
Arthur Ram will give his inaugural lecture ‘Waarom langdradig schimmels niet saai zijn’ (‘Why filamentous fungi are not (s)boring’) on 9 February.
Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Arthur Ram