(Cover art by @giraffesdoingthings)
When most of us think of life on the Moon or Mars we imagine big, metal structures, flying cars, and metallic space suits. But what if I told you that the reality of our future in outer space is even more fantastical. Rather than building structures made of glass or metal, scientists are turning to a material that’s far more eco friendly and sustainable: fungi.
Using fungus as a resource may not only help us inhabit our earth for longer than projected, but it may help us colonize our neighboring planets.
The Myco-Architecture Project
NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley has been working on a way for us to begin inhabiting outer space. The myco-architecture project has started to prototype methods in which we could “grow” habitats on planets like the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Many of the current prototypes for homes on Mars involve inhabitants carrying their home with them to their new planet, similar to how a turtle carried their shell. However, this method has shown to be incredibly expensive with absorbent energy costs.
NASA’s Ames Research Center is seeking the help of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC), a group of synthetic biologists who study how we can use life itself as a source of technology. Together, they are considering how fungi can be used as a building material in space. The myco-architecture project envisions inhabitants bringing a light-weight and compact habitat containing dormant fungi, which could survive during the long journey to their destination. When they arrive, they would take apart their compact habitat, add water, and watch their fungi (specifically the mycelium) grow into their preexisting home’s framework and into a fully equipped space-home.
The homes NASA and NIAC are prototyping would be made of mycelium, also known as the primary portion of a mushroom's life cycle. The mushrooms that we see in our grocery stores or growing out of the soil in the woods are actually the last and most temporary phase of this same cycle.
Mycelium often can't be seen with the naked eye in nature, rather it lives abundantly underground, creating an intricate web of information highways underneath the forest floor. This complicated web looks a bit like veins in the human body and serves as an immune response to the fungal organism to ensure the life cycle runs smoothly and effectively.
Mycelium can be easily grown into molds, which is why recently it’s been used to create green shipping packaging, “leather”, or even meatless bacon. It’s also why it's the perfect material to grow homes on extraterrestrial planets.
What Would They Look Like?
The myco-architecture project envisions that a home for future astronauts needs to be more than just a shell, which is why they’re designing a fully-equipped home with all basic needs met, just like on Earth. Similar to the astronauts who need to eat and breathe to survive, so do the fungal mycelia, which is mirrored in NASA’s habitat design.
The idea comes together in the form of a three-layer dome. The outermost layer could be made up of a resource, like frozen ice tapped from the ecosystem. The first layer would protect the second layer, which would be made up of cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria - the key to mycelia survival - is a kind of bacterium that uses energy from the sun to take carbon dioxide and water and turn it into oxygen and food. This cyanobacteria layer would use the water from the first layer to photosynthesize using the light from outside producing oxygen for its inhabitants and nutrients for the final layer of the dome. The final layer would be made of mycelium. which is essentially the web that grows into a sturdy home. It protects the astronauts from the outside environment while ensuring that nothing contaminates the preexisting life on the Moon or Mars.
Mycelium-made Homes On Earth
Across the planet, there is a dire need for affordable and sustainable housing. Shockingly, about 40% of global carbon emissions are sourced from new construction, which is a completely unsustainable number. Mycelium-grown houses could be a huge breakthrough in the housing crisis that is plaguing our planet.
While the Moon and Mars require a new way of living and building, so does our planet as a result of global warming and environmental changes. By turning our attention to technologies and materials that work with our ecosystem rather than against it, we can work towards a greener and more sustainable future, both in the here and now, and in our future in outer space.