A 7.5-feet-long mushroom canoe demonstrates the powerful versatility of mycelium

A material that can help "overcome the symptoms of climate change".
Chris Young
Katy Ayers using the "MyConoe"Provided by Katy Ayers/Megan Ayers

Mushrooms could be key in our fight against climate change.

In a bid to raise awareness on the versatility of the fungi as a building material, Washington State University student Katy Ayers built a 7.5-foot-long canoe using mycelium, the expansive roots of the common fungi.

In an interview with IE, Ayers explained that "once you start looking into what fungi are already doing for our planet, it becomes clear that we should be paying more attention to these organisms."

She and her building partner, mushroom cultivation expert William "Ash" Gordon, have since won a Guinness World Record for creating the world's longest fungal mycelium boat.

Building "MyConoe"

Mycelium is a wonder material, but it doesn't quite get the recognition it deserves. Still, Ayers and Gordon are joined by companies such as Ecovative Design and Dutch firm Loop in their attempts to change perceptions — the former develops sustainable mushroom packaging and eco-friendly building materials, while the second grows living coffins for more environmentally friendly burials. The material naturally breaks down harmful pollutants at the same time as being versatile enough to be molded into a whole host of everyday objects, accessories, and tools.

A 7.5-feet-long mushroom canoe demonstrates the powerful versatility of mycelium
The "MyConoe" during the growth process. Source: Megan Ayers/Katy Ayers

While at college, Ayers watched a documentary called 'Super Fungi' by Anne Rizzo and Thomas Sipp, which inspired her to make her own creation. It was shortly afterward that she reached out to Gordon, owner of Nebraska Mushroom LLC, with her idea for a mycelium canoe. "I found myself inspired to make something out of the material after [a] section [from 'Super Fungi'] on fungal packaging. After I heard it was buoyant, I knew I needed to start working out a method to grow a boat."

Gordon agreed to help Ayers on her project and he even offered her a summer internship at the company. The duo set about building their canoe in May 2019, dubbing it "MyConoe". Working mainly at nights and on the weekends, the canoe took almost half a year to plan and then grow. It's a project that took off on social media, helping to raise a great deal of awareness on the potential of mycelium as a building material.

A 7.5-feet-long mushroom canoe demonstrates the powerful versatility of mycelium
The "MyConoe" took almost half a year to grow. Source: Megan Ayers/Katy Ayers

"Overall it took roughly 5 months to complete," Gordon told IE in a separate interview. "But once we filled the mold with the substrate it only took 7 days to fully consolidate and become MyConoe." He explained how the bulk of the work went towards timing the different pieces of the boat to line up. Setting themselves a deadline before their local State Fair, they "only had one shot to pull it off," Gordon said, "so it did make the project and any bumps in the road slightly stressful, but it was so satisfying and worth it to see that thing float for the first time!"

Mycelium could help to turn the tide on climate change

Now, with a Guinness World Record — awarded in September 2019 — under their belt, Ayers and Gordon have had some time to reflect on their mycelium-related success. "I was elated to hear that Guinness wanted to add a new section for the World’s Largest Fungal Mycelium Boat," Ayers said. "I think 8-year-old me would be very proud."

Still, according to Ayers, researchers have only scratched the surface of what the material can do for the world. "Fungi are able to break down some of the most harmful pollutants on our planet — from plastics to carcinogens to radioactive material, fungi consume it all." And yet, Ayers said, "we have only identified a fraction of the fungi on the planet, leading many to suspect that for every persistent chemical we released throughout history, there is at least one fungus that could adapt to consume it."

A 7.5-feet-long mushroom canoe demonstrates the powerful versatility of mycelium
A closeup of the bow of "MyConoe". Source: Katy Ayers

The fungi we do currently have at our disposal can provide a great boost to ongoing efforts to clean the environmentAyers explained that she believes mycelium could help to clean up the mess we have already made on our planet as well as help to address problems areas stemming from climate change. Examples she mentioned to us include temporary housing grown from mycelium for disaster relief efforts, as well as fire-resistant walls made from the material. 

"I can go on and on about ways fungi in general can be used to overcome the symptoms of climate change," Ayers continued. "However, the true fight will be finding ways to incorporate nature into industry to reduce the environmental impact of our world economy." She said she believes the next generation of engineers will rise to the occasion.

A 7.5-feet-long mushroom canoe demonstrates the powerful versatility of mycelium
One of Ayers' and Gordons' mycelium bee hotels. Source: Megan Ayers/Katy Ayers

As for Ayers' and Gordons' next project: the duo is now working on mycelium-based bee hotels to help with conservation efforts for solitary bee and wasp populations. Once the bee habitats serve their purpose in the Spring and Summer, they can then be broken apart, providing natural fertilizer for the local environment. While the bee hotels are consuming the majority of her free time, Ayers explained, she has "more than three notebooks full of ideas. So, I don't expect to run out of interesting things to do with fungi any time soon."

It's that great ability for the far-reaching roots of mycelium to be adapted to so many ideas that means its use could be scaled to help reduce our dependence on materials that are harmful for the environment, at the same time as helping to repair the damage that came before.

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