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Ever read a fairy tale that goes down the rabbit hole of creatures living in or on mushrooms, like Alice in Wonderland’s Absolem (above)? Humans could someday be those creatures—in space.
NASA is harnessing the benefits of synthetic biology for potential lunar and Martian habitats with myco-architecture. These will use mycelia, underground fungal structures made of thin white filaments called hyphae, which branch out into complex networks. Mycelia are able to combine into larger groups and build structures with amazing precision for something without a brain or any sort of neural network. The myco-architecture project at NASA Ames has proven these abilities can be manipulated into growing the hangouts of future astronauts.
“Imagine a self-pitching habitat made of a light, fibrous material, with excellent mechanical properties, said principal investigator Lynn Rothschild, who is currently prototyping these (almost) magic mushroom habitats with an eye on eventually making furniture and rover shells with mycelia.
Synthetic biology involves the redesign of organisms that enables them to serve a certain purpose, such as the bio-bots made completely of embryonic frog cells that were “programmed” to perform certain tasks. It’s already a plus that fungal mycelium is a tough fibrous material that is self-replicating and self-repairing. The humungous fungus is also unbelievably tough. It can survive wet, dry, frozen or, as Rothschild described it, “part of a self-produced composite which could allow such enhancements as radiation protection and a vapor seal.”
There are many futuristically cool lunar and Martian habitat concepts out there, but the downside of most of these (except maybe those lava tubes already on the Moon) is that humans will have to carry them over there as part of the payload. That means huge energy costs. What the myco-architecture project will improve on is the whole taking-it-with-you thing. Astronauts won’t have to load much onto a spacecraft headed for the Moon or Mars, just a lightweight, compact habitat with dormant fungi that can be activated by just adding water.
Rothschild’s concept is a dome that is not just a habitat, but a layered ecosystem. Before the mission takes off from Earth, a flexible plastic shell will be made to the habitat’s specifications and seeded with mycelia and the cyanobacteria (more on that later). Struts can later be used for it to take shape on alien ground.
Upon landing, the fungus and bacteria would be moistened with water and heated enough so the habitat can grow. The first layer beyond the plastic will be made of ice, possibly lunar or Martian water ice, and will protect inhabitants from radiation. Cyanobacteria will make up the second layer. However creepy a bacterial layer sounds, these microorganisms use solar energy to photosynthesize, converting water and CO2 into oxygen for astronauts and nutrients to feed the fungus underneath. Mycelia in the final layer will grow in a contained environment before it is baked to kill the microbes and keep them from invading other planets.
Because we really don’t know whether Martian microbes actually exist, the mycelia will be genetically altered before takeoff so they won’t survive long enough to contaminate extraterrestrial ground if any spores escape. Water, heat and bacteria can always be added back if astronauts need to grow the habitat again. That's not the kind of renovation you hear about every day.
“If successful in developing a biocomposite material that can grow itself, NASA will have a radically new, cheaper, faster lighter material for designing habitats for extended duration lunar missions, Mars missions, and mobile habitats as well as furniture and other structures,” Rothschild said.
Myco-architecture could create eco-friendly living spaces on Earth, so you really could be that person who lives in a mushroom.