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Magic Mushrooms of another kind

Magic Mushrooms of another kind
Photo: © Birke Weber

Synthetic colors can be harmful to people and the environment and usually require petroleum for their production. Designer Birke Weber and biochemist Friederike Hoberg want to change this - and make the textile industry a little more circular. With their research project MycoColors, they are producing natural colors from fungi, harmless and from raw materials that can be cultivated in the laboratory. How does it work? And where can their colors be used? We talked to the two of them about this. 

 

INTERVIEW  Boris Messing    

 

CCB Magazine: Hello Birke and Friederike. Together you are researching the potential of colorants from mushrooms. How did you come up with this idea? And how did you come together?   

Friederike Hoberg: We met in 2021 as part of an exhibition, "Tiny be - living in a small space", for which we built a house out of mushrooms with the MY-CO-X collective. It was a colorful group of architects, biotechnologists, designers and artists. Birke came up with the idea of coloring the interior of the house using mushroom fruit bodies, which worked out quite well. Nine months later, we decided to continue our research into coloring with the help of mushrooms. We applied for a grant and just got started. Our initial question was: How can we bring design and biotechnology together?

Birke Weber: We started with the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms that we looked for in the Brandenburg forests. We came up with some great colors. But then the question was: how could we make this usable on a larger scale? Unfortunately, this is not so easy with the fruiting bodies of stand fungi, because these fungi live in a complex symbiotic system that cannot always be replicated in the laboratory. For this reason, our idea was to use fungi that can be cultivated in the laboratory and their mycelium.

CCB Magazine:With your MycoColors project, you are aiming for sustainable color production. What is so problematic about the synthetic production of colors? How are colors produced in the first place?

Friederike Hoberg:A distinction must first be made between organic colors and inorganic pigments. Inorganic pigments are used as wall paints or car paints, for example, and are not water-soluble. From a chemical point of view, water-soluble colors, on the other hand, are organic colors that are produced synthetically, mainly from petroleum products. There are different classes of dyes; one of the most typical, which is used in the textile industry, but also in the food and cosmetics industries, are azo colors. These account for around 80 percent of synthetic dyes. The problem is that they are not only petroleum-based, but some of these dyes can also be broken down into carcinogenic degradation substances by microorganisms or UV radiation.

Birke Weber: These harmful dyes are often used in textile production, especially in the context of fast fashion. On the one hand, this leads to massive damage to people and the environment on site. On the other hand, this also has an impact on consumers because we wear the clothes on our bodies and the dyes are released into the environment when the clothes are disposed of and washed. But the dyeing of textiles is just one of many problems associated with the recyclability of textile products.


Top: The mushrooms. Below: The color. Photos: Birke Weber

CCB Magazine:Does this mean that your colors are mainly used for textile products?

Friederike Hoberg:There are various branches of industry that you could imagine using them in, such as the textile industry, but also for cosmetic or food colorants. But our colors are not suitable for use as wall paints or varnishes as they are water-soluble.

CCB Magazine:Can you explain your production process in more detail? Which mushrooms are you experimenting with and how does the mushroom mycelium become color in the end?

Friederike Hoberg:As I said, we started with the fruiting bodies and are now working with the mycelium of various mushrooms. Unfortunately, we can't reveal which mushrooms we are using. But I can say that we are working with fungi that are easy to cultivate in the laboratory. We grow the fungal mycelium in a liquid medium with essential nutrients (e.g. sugar) and at a specific temperature. The dyes produced by the fungus are released by the mycelium into the culture medium. We can then use the culture medium directly for dyeing.

Birke Weber: We only know about five percent of all existing fungi on earth. Of the fraction that we do know, there are already so many mushrooms that produce different colors that we can assume that the possibility of color production using fungi is unlimited

CCB Magazine:Do you only do your research in pairs or do you have collaboration partners? How do you divide up the work, who does what?

Friederike Hoberg:I am currently doing my PhD on fungus-based dyes in the Department of Applied and Molecular Microbiology at TU Berlin. I am primarily responsible for the biotechnological research part. It would be very expensive to set up our own laboratory, which is why we are very happy to be so close to TU Berlin. We are still in the research phase, and a lot of research is still needed to bring our idea to market maturity.

Birke Weber:I am now also starting a two-year position at the TU. I'm trying out the dyes on the textiles, testing dyeing processes and developing the project further. We made a conscious decision not to act like a start-up, but to take the time we need without having to be profitable.

CCB Magazine:What colors can be created with mushrooms in general and how high is the quality of the color?

Birke Weber:We only know about five percent of all existing fungi on earth! So only a very small fraction has been discovered so far and very few of these have been researched. Of the fraction that we do know, there are already so many mushrooms that produce different colors that we can assume that the possibility of color production using fungi is unlimited. The quality of the color is high. We are currently researching the colors yellow, orange and red with a fungus that can produce a whole range of dyes.


And this is what the colors from MycoColors look like. Photos: Birke Weber

CCB Magazine:Why hasn't the industry picked up on this yet? Why is there only now movement in the field of sustainable colors?

Friederike Hoberg:There are some companies that have been specializing in natural colors made from plants or animals for decades. In particular, colors made from plants are of great interest, but are simply very expensive in contrast to synthetic colors. This is due to the long growing period of the plants and the need for agricultural land, which competes with the food and animal feed industry. In addition, the industry is geared towards dyeing processes with synthetic dyes. A changeover is associated with high costs. The use of microorganisms, i.e. bacteria, fungi or algae, for the production of colors is actually quite new. I can't say exactly why the idea has only emerged in recent years. What does play a role, however, is that the dangers that synthetic dyes pose to humans and nature were not known in society for a long time. In the EU, there are now strict regulations on the use of synthetic colors and therefore a need for alternatives. The idea of a biotechnological solution is an obvious one.

Birke Weber:There are already companies that specialize in bacterial or algae-based colors. There are also a few start-ups that are experimenting with fungi, particularly in the area of food colorants or water-insoluble pigments. We don't see this as competition because there is a huge demand for alternatives to petroleum-based colors and we can learn from each other.

Friederike Hoberg: The use of microorganisms for the production of colors is quite new. The dangers that synthetic colors pose to humans and nature were not known for a long time. But there are now strict regulations on the use of synthetic colors in the EU - and therefore a need for alternatives

CCB Magazine:Do you want to commercialize your idea? What about the costs?

Friederike Hoberg:These questions do not arise for us at this moment. Whether chemically manufactured products are more expensive or cheaper than biotechnologically manufactured products depends on many things, research costs, the duration of research, etc. Biotechnological products can be incredibly cheap; the production of antibiotics, for example, also using fungi, is very inexpensive. In other words, a biotechnological product can be produced just as cheaply as a chemically synthesized product. Then, of course, there is the question of what textile manufacturers are prepared to pay for the color. The color is only one component of a textile product, i.e. one cost factor among many. Whether this is economical for commercial use remains to be seen.

Birke Weber:To commercialize our idea, we still have to make a few adjustments. As I said, we want to take our time with this. First we have to make sure that we can scale up without any problems and perfect the dyeing process. Then we'll see what happens.

CCB Magazine:Where will MycoColors be in ten years' time if you have your way?

Birke Weber:I hope our concept will be an integral part of the new colors. In ten years' time, the circular economy will probably have finally arrived in the textile industry. The industry will want alternatives to synthetic colors - and we will offer them.

Category: Innovation & Vision

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