Nature’s unsung superheroes? Mushrooms!

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While Fiat Vox is on summer break, we have been revisiting some of our favorite episodes. In this episode, first released in 2018, we talk with then-Ph.D. candidate Sonia Travaglini, who is now on staff at the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership at Berkeley, about how we could use fungi to mitigate all sorts of environmental and social problems, including pollution and homelessness, just by letting them eat our waste.

Sonia Travaglini holds a mushroom brick while she smiles

Sonia Travaglini holds a Ganoderma lucidum, also known as the Reishi mushroom. As a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, Travaglini developed and tested novel mushroom materials. Now, she’s on staff at the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership at Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

Read a transcript of Fiat Vox episode #81: “Nature’s unsung superheroes? Mushrooms!”

Narration: This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice.

While Fiat Vox is on summer break, we have been revisiting some of our favorite episodes. This one is from 2018, about how fungi could be used to mitigate human-made problems, including pollution and homelessness.

[Music: “Are We Loose Yet” by Blue Dot Sessions]

For Sonia Travaglini, mushrooms are her life. And, she says, they’re everywhere, even though they don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve.

Sonia Travaglini: I would say fungi have been the hidden cousin to all of their more popular cousins and brothers in the biological world.

Narration: Travaglini is a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. Her research is all about developing and testing novel mushroom materials.

Sonia Travaglini: So, what we do is we get mushrooms that like to eat all sorts of things — they’re nature’s recyclers — and they like to eat all sorts of industrial wastes.

Narration: There are more than 5 million species of fungi, and each one likes a particular food. Some like sawdust. Others like plastic. Some can even digest heavy metals.

After the fungi eat their meal, what was once just waste turns into a new, natural and compostable material that can just be left to decompose or can be used in all kinds of practical ways.

The type of mushroom that Travaglini works most closely with is the Ganoderma lucidum, also known as the Reishi mushroom. It’s been called “the mushroom of immortality.”

But when it’s not providing a magical cure for aging, it eats sawdust.

Anne Brice: Looking at this, you can actually see some sawdust in there. Is that right?

Sonia Travaglini: Exactly. That’s because we decide exactly how much of the sawdust it eats.

Narration: Here’s how it works: Say you’re at an industrial site where there’s a lot of sawdust waste. To get rid of it, you can sprinkle a couple spores from a Ganoderma lucidum into a pile of shavings.

Sonia Travaglini: At first, you just see little tendrils growing out, like the roots of a tree. After a while, all these roots intermingle and link up and start to make the cellular material.

Narration: If the fungi are allowed to gorge for several weeks, they’ll convert all the sawdust to mushroom flesh, creating a heavy, solid material that can withstand a lot of force, similar to wood.

If they’re stopped before they’re full, say after just a week or two, they create a lighter material with a lot of sawdust still mixed in.

After it becomes the type of material that growers are looking for, they have to denature it.

Sonia Travaglini: You have to kill the mushrooms.

Narration: To do this, they take the mushroom substance, put it in an oven and bake it at 70 degrees Celsius or about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
This new material can be made into different shapes — like small bricks. And it can be used for all sorts of things, like insulation in walls, packaging, building furniture — even as a leather substitute.

Sonia Travaglini: Ultimately, when you make products from animals it takes so much energy just to get there. And, of course, it’s not very fair to the animals. So, by using something that actually wants to get rid of waste for you because that’s what it loves to do — all of those sorts of ethical questions are resolved.

And you’re also putting in so much less energy, which means you’re not causing as much greenhouse gas and you’re sequestering carbon into those materials. You’re literally helping stop the planet from overheating.

[Music: “Arizona Moon” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Narration: There are two companies in the country — MycoWorks in San Francisco and Ecovative in New York City — working to use fungi to create everything from faux leather handbags to wine coolers to packing supplies. For the past few years, UC Berkeley has been collaborating with MycoWorks to test the strength and durability of their products.

So, do all of these products smell like mushrooms? The answer is no, for a couple of reasons.

First, the materials aren’t actually made with mushrooms. They’re made from mycelium, which are like the roots of fungi — they don’t smell like the mushrooms you’d grow in your garden or buy at the store. The mushroom part is like the pungent fruit of the fungi.

And second, the material is denatured and dried, which leaves it nearly odorless. Travaglini says it might smell a bit woodsy, but definitely not mushroomy.

The possibilities of using fungi to mitigate environmental problems are far-reaching, says Travaglini. Take an oil spill, for instance.

Sonia Travaglini: You can get bags of straw that have been soaking up, for example, crude oil spills, let them loose with a mushroom that particularly likes crude oil and straw, and then they will actually eat all of that up, break it down, contain any unsafe materials and then just digest it. And then, when you’ve finished, you can simply use them as fertilizer.

Narration: And, she says, there are specific fungi that not only like to eat crude oil and straw, but that also thrive in any given climate.

Sonia Travaglini: There’s a fungi for everything. There is literally one or several species that are not only interested in the feedstock you want to get rid of — for example, crude oil — but that will also really enjoy the temperature you’re at.

Narration: Fungi could also be used to clean up landfills or make toilets safer in developing countries.

[Music: “Heliotrope” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Travaglini says fungi even have potential to alleviate different social problems, like homelessness, by eating extra materials, like cardboard, to create a more durable material that could be used to build houses.

To stop the structure from breaking down from moisture, she says the material can be covered in latex or shellac.

Anne Brice: Why aren’t we using mushrooms for everything right now?

Sonia Travaglini: Well, they’re just growing. People are just becoming aware of fungi, and although it’s all around us — it’s even in our guts, it’s on our skin, it’s in the soil around us — it’s just one of those kinds of hidden wonders that people haven’t really tapped into yet.

Anne Brice: I wonder if mushrooms will eventually just take over the world …?

Sonia Travaglini: I think one might have an argument that they already have. They’re so included in everything we do. So, they’re really already there. But so far, they’re our friends, not our enemies.

Narration: Here’s to staying on good terms with fungi.

This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice. You can find a transcript and photos from this episode on Berkeley News at