NASA is sharing information about its myco-architecture program, in which experimental fungus-based building technologies could be the feasible future of Mars habitats, Report informs.
“Science fiction often imagines our future on Mars and other planets as run by machines, with metallic cities and flying cars rising above dunes of red sand,” NASA says. “But the reality may be even stranger.”
The myco-architecture (myco is the prefix meaning “fungus”) NASA is excited about isn’t only a new way to make furniture, although it can do that, the agency says. Mushroom House—not its real name—is an integrated habitat with layers. The tough, complex fibers made by fungal mycelia are building blocks of furniture, interior walls, and the innermost layer of the outer shell. After that comes a layer of cyanobacteria, which photosynthesize water and CO₂ into “oxygen and fungus food.” The outermost layer in the model is solid ice, which is both protective and nourishing to the cyanobacteria below.
Bricks and other structures made using myco-architecture are lightweight, easily blended with reused materials like wood chips to make something like plywood, but with mushrooms. NASA pithily says sci-fi relies on shiny metal and flying cars, but the idea of organically grown housing or even spaceships goes back decades. And NASA isn’t alone in suggesting that fast-growing natural fibers are the future: In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2018 novel Red Moon, bamboo forms the backbone of an international moon station where thousands of people live and work. Characters marvel at how much the plants grow within even just a day.
On the food podcast Check the Pantry, an Alaska mushroom farmer said once his mushroom cave has taken root, so to speak, new mushrooms can be harvested about every three to five days for the whole growing season. Some fungi grow so fast that scientists are attempting to slow them in order to better study and prevent environmental harm. Different kinds feed on decaying organic material or have symbiotic relationships with plants. The relationship in the NASA myco-architectural model resembles naturally occurring lichen, which are composite organisms made of cyanobacteria and different kinds of fungi.
The lab running the myco-architectural experiments explains that any travel to Mars will follow the so-called “turtle model”: If we want to live there, we have to carry everything with us in order to do that. (Remember what Matt Damon has to do in order to make nutritious soil for growing potatoes in The Martian?)
On our planet, scientists would build and seed a full-scale fungal Chia Pet house. “On Earth, a flexible plastic shell produced to the final habitat dimensions would be seeded with mycelia and dried feedstock and the outside sterilized. […] At destination, the mycelial and feedstock material would be moistened with water and heated, initiating fungal growth.”
Inside the Chia Mushroom House, myco-architecture research lead Lynn Rothschild says the fungi could be biologically tuned to make all kinds of other materials like bioplastics and latex. The fungal materials are insulating, self-repairing, fire-retardant, and with the right melanin levels, reflective of incoming radiation. Finally, science is catching up to what Mario and friends have known since 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 3: A Mushroom House bestows a valuable bonus.
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