Fungi: Food to Fashion

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For generations, just ‘Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan’, were considered enough for survival. But now, to ensure that we live and pass on a world worth living, it is equally important to keep a check on what ‘roti’ (food) we are eating, what ‘kapda’ (textile)we are wearing, and what ‘makaan’ (house) we live in. We need to know about all the options available to us, and there are times when we feel we are out of sustainable ones, although there exists an immense diversity of organisms. It is next to impossible for us to study and appreciate all that can be obtained from each of these, that would contribute to mutually beneficial sustainable interactions. Every once in a while, we have breakthroughs and discoveries, and these organisms never stop to surprise us in their manners of rescuing our population. Throughout human history, there have been revolutions that were previously unimaginable. We have found and are still trying to come up with solutions to endless modern problems. The story that is shared here is that of a simple organism that helped us overcome both ethical and environmental challenges in the textile industry: the fungi.

Have you ever thought that any other attire can get you the same lavish praise that your favourite leather jacket managed to snatch from the audience? That may be tough. 

Leather products have not only fetched praise but have also raised serious ethical questions similar to other animal products, and environmental concerns regarding the toxic chemicals released during tanning procedures. To tackle some of these issues, synthetic leather derived from PU (Polyurethane) and PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) was launched in the market. Synthetic leather helped eliminate the ethical issues but the environmental burden was only partly decreased, although it was reduced when compared to bovine leather. The problem with synthetic leather is its non-biodegradability and the use of fossil resources for its production. Surprisingly, fungi species, arriving as saviours, formed an effective solution to deal with this issue.

Cave paintings dating back to 6,000 BC show that fungi were used for food processing and some rituals. From making bread and beer, to creating antibiotics, fungi have truly led to some brilliant changes in the lives of humans. Inspired by the use of fungal chitin in papermaking (due to its similarities with cellulose), some companies from Indonesia, Italy, and the US have already launched prototypes of fungi-derived leather-like materials in the markets.

These products, including shoes, sandals, handbags, wallets, watch bands, and jackets. are made from mycelium-derived leather and produced at costs lower than bovine and synthetic leather. Further, they are comparable to the latter in terms of appearance and durability. Apart from their biodegradability, fungal hyphae can be easily and economically grown on low-cost agricultural by-products, such as blackstrap molasses, or forestry by-products, such as sawdust. Chitinous leather-like materials can be extracted from fungal mycelium, the elongated tubular structures that constitute the vegetative growth of filamentous fungi, as well as from the mushroom (fruiting bodies). These jackets (and other products) primarily contain chitin (allowing your coats to match those of popular insects like the cockroach) and other polysaccharides, such as glucans, chitosan, polyglucuronic acid, or cellulose. The challenges associated with the production of mycelium-derived leather include the proper sterilization of raw materials to avoid the growth of unwanted microbes. Another challenge is to develop homogeneous mycelium mats on an industrial scale, that exhibit uniform growth and consistent thickness, colour, and mechanical properties. Today we have several biotechnology companies competing to make the best ‘leather-no-leather’ products, but are we ready to opt for sustainable choices in every possible scenario and not just in fashion?

References:

  1. Jones, M., Gandia, A., John, S. et al. Leather-like material biofabrication using fungi. Nat Sustain 4, 9–16 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00606-1