When Vera Meyer is looking for answers to pressing questions about the future, she is drawn to Brandenburg's forests.
On birch or beech trees, the Berlin biotechnologist and her team find mushrooms like the tinder sponge, which now works miracles in a laboratory at the Technical University: tiny pieces are transformed into hemp, poplar or rapeseed remains Mushroom threads in building material, a lampshade or a bicycle helmet within about two weeks – quite naturally. The unusual mushroom cultivation fits the theme of the new year of science, the 16. January is heralded: Bioeconomy.
Climate change, seas full of plastic, dwindling agricultural land and running out of fossil raw materials: it has long been clear that it will hardly be possible without a rethink.
Scientists like Vera Meyer aim to transform today's petroleum-based economy through new ideas – towards sustainable use of renewable raw materials. This is what the term bioeconomy stands for. «We all have to adjust. But it doesn't necessarily have to get worse, »emphasizes Meyer.
Perspectives – and dead ends
Bioeconomists are concerned with conserving resources and at the same time protecting them To secure living standards. They think, for example, of microorganisms that break down pollutants, of kerosene substitutes from algae or of plastics that decompose easily, as the website of the new year of science says. There is often an ambition to copy successful concepts from nature, for example the feather-light but extremely resistant spider silk, the water-repellent surface of lotus leaves or the adhesive force of gecko feet – and to transfer them to new products.
Basic researcher Meyer remains critical despite all the euphoria about the potential of microorganisms. “Not everything that is produced organically is cheaper in terms of water consumption or CO2 footprint and is also biodegradable,” she says. In retrospect, for example, the idea of using vegetable foods to produce fuels such as bioethanol was a dead end.
That is why the scalp test in the laboratory is just the beginning of a long series of tests in which from material scientists to architects many disciplines are involved. For Meyer, this is the big advantage over many companies. “We simply have everyone we need at a large technical university.”
Even students from very different disciplines jumped on the idea. Meyer has called her research workshop “Mind the Fungi!” (Note mushrooms!), In which interested citizens and artists can also participate. With a view to future “mushroom design”, she brought a Berlin art college on board. “We need swarm intelligence.” The researcher originally comes from basic biotechnological research. Today she creates delicate sculptures made of mushrooms and exhibits them. For Meyer there are no hard boundaries between science and art.
Bastian Schubert also does research in her TU Laboratory for Applied and Molecular Microbiology. He has grown a bicycle helmet from tinder sponge cells and vegetable residues. The idea of the biotechnology student has now become his bachelor's thesis. The result sits on his head like a mushroom hat. The prototype has a velvety-soft surface and smells slightly of fresh straw.
Bastian Schubert could not cycle with it yet, because as soon as water dripped onto his helmet, it would start to grow – and rot. At the moment, his invention would probably be an idea for ecological protective material under the conventional outer shell of a bicycle helmet. But material researchers still have to find out whether the natural product is shatterproof and shockproof enough to meet DIN standards.
The ideas grow on the trees
“We are at the beginning of the process chain,” emphasizes Meyer. Feather-light mushroom blocks lie on her desk, which her team has grown for architects in rectangular standard brick shapes. There are also mushroom rolls that grew in plastic tubes. Stacked on top of each other, mushroom stones could result in a wall made of natural insulation material for dry rooms. The round bodies could possibly sheath and insulate heating pipes.
70 Tree fungus species from Brandenburg's forests have been tested by Meyer with her team since a collection campaign in October. The tinder sponge outdid all of its competitors: it adapts to any shape that is given to it when it is grown on a nutrient medium including water. Then the cells condense until the researchers intervene and finish the product by removing water.
“In theory, any shape that a 3D printer can produce, for example, is possible for mushroom design,” says Vera Meyer. The mushroom then grows exactly in this form. For example, tables, chairs or lampshades are possible. “If you no longer like them, you shred them and throw them on the compost.” As in nature, the eco-material then decomposes completely – without any landfill or waste incineration plant. They would be products for a throw-away society with no regrets.
Using genetic engineering, fungal cells could be changed in such a way that building materials are created as desired, Meyer is convinced. For example, it would be possible to replace plasterboard or polystyrene. Her dream is to be able to construct houses out of mushroom material at some point – perhaps more earthquake-proof than today and easy to dispose of again without additional environmental pollution.
Vegan mushroom leather
Complete castles in the air are not such ideas. The new Berlin Museum Futurium is already showing building materials made of natural materials, including biological cement, in an exhibition. The method works similarly to the organisms that form coral reefs. It is said that significantly less CO2 is produced during production than with comparable building materials. A start-up in the USA is already selling the product.
According to Meyer, mushroom researchers are generally already opening doors – for example with vegan mushroom leather. Research is also carried out on clothing made from mushroom cells. The biggest hurdle remains to fit a resource-conserving organic production into conventional manufacturing processes, to make it suitable for the masses and affordable.
Whether your mushrooms can become something practical also depends on German research funding, says Meyer. She wants to apply for it. And the timeline after that? “Five to ten years,” estimates the scientist. “It's a question of manpower.” The potential of the estimated six million types of mushrooms, of which only around 100 000 are scientifically described, at least she thinks it is completely underestimated.
One thing Meyer does not think about mushrooms: porcini mushrooms or chanterelles on a plate. «I love going to the forest. But I don't like to eat mushrooms at all. »
(( Ulrike von Leszczynski, dpa )