Engineering mycelium as a promising new class of biomaterials

In 2017, the size of the global leather goods market was valued at 414 Billion USD with a CAGR of 5.4%. Since leather and pleather are both derived from unsustainable polluting industries, demand for sustainable and ecological alternatives is growing. 

A new leather-like material composed of fungal biomass (mycelium) is gaining momentum and beside its nature friendly character, it has potential to become more cost effective than traditional leather. Mycelium, the root-like structure of filamentous fungi, grows on agricultural and forestry lignocellulosic biomass often categorized as waste streams. This combined with low water consumption, rapid growth (10-14 days) of the mycelium and the unique ability to adopt any shape or dimension, makes it an ingenious biomass production system. Since the ability to grow mycelium is inherent to large phylogenetic groups of fungi, the usable species diversity is enormous and can be translated to unique features and mycelium composition for each species. Besides natural diversity, the rise of new generation molecular engineering tools and synthetic biology could lead to genetically engineered strains with superior properties for leather-like materials. The cell wall of fungi is predominantly composed of β-glucan-chitin complexes and glycoproteins. With the right combination of post growth treatments, a wide range of functionalities and application can be obtained from a single biomass source. Paper like-materials, foam-like materials, sponge-like materials, leather-like materials, etc. The possibilities are numerous and all part of a sustainable, closed loop production process. A growing number of companies are wandering into this new field driven by the need for sustainability in material production and world-famous consumer brands and fashion designers (Adidas, Hermès, Stella McCartney, ...) have already started promoting new product lines made from mycelium leather. This new technology of mycelium-based materials is still in its infancy but there is a bright future lying ahead. At our research lab we dive into the exploration of process parameters and develop molecular tools to increase the workability of the organism at the genetic level. We aim to adapt the organism to the application of growing leather like materials such that current cultivation processes can benefit but also look to add new traits through genetic engineering resulting in superior material characteristics.

Authors

Simon Vandelook (1), Eveline Peeters (1)

Organisations

1. Research group of Microbiology (MICR) Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)

Presenting author

Simon Vandelook, PhD, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
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