VUB in international pioneering research on living materials

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The EU Commission is awarding 4 million to FUNGATERIA, a pioneering international research project in which the Vrije Universiteit Brussel is also participating. The project, led by Prof Phil Ayres of the Royal Danish Academy - Architecture, Design and Conservation, investigates how living fungi in cooperation with bacteria are capable to produce sustainable and intelligent materials.

Phil Ayres: "In the coming decades, a global shortage of key resources and materials is expected to occur, while forecasts indicate that demand for them will almost double. This affects virtually all sectors. Our goal is that the research results pave the way for the creation of new materials and production methods. We will look for biological and intelligent materials for the construction industry and beyond, which are also resource-saving in production and environmentally friendly."

Self-healing shoes from fungal leather

The project is investigating so-called "Engineered Living Materials" (ELMs). ELMs are materials composed of living cells that retain their biological activity within different use scenarios. The project will investigate new functionalities of these materials, such as their inherent intelligent, adaptive and self-healing properties.

Prof. Eveline Peeters of the VUB's Microbiology research group explains: "We are talking about benign fungi and bacteria that are not harmful to health. Interest in the use of fungi for various material applications, so-called mycomaterials, is on the rise. For example, Adidas and Hermes are developing prototypes for shoes and bags from these materials as sustainable alternatives to animal leather or plastic. The automotive sector is also interested in experimenting with seat covers or dashboard insulation made from mycomaterials. In current experiments and applications, the mold is killed at the end of the production phase. But this new project FUNGATERIA is visionary and goes one step further: what if we let the organisms live while using the material? We could then, for example, make shoes out of "fungal leather," which could heal itself if scratched."

Fungi in self-production

The project will develop mycelium-based ELMs composed of a co-cultivation process with a bacterial strain. The VUB Microbiology research group will take on the development of a production platform.

Peeters: "We want to investigate how we can control the fungi during the growth process. In what shape can the organisms be grown? When do they become active and how? What properties do they have? How can we start directing and controlling this? But also -and this is the radically new thing about ithow can the fungus itself be put to work? We assume that we can use the adaptability of the fungi to develop an autonomous bottom-up production technology, where the fungi are thus at the helm of their own production."

Living microbes also tackle pollution

The production platform also addresses ecological priorities such as degrading environmental pollutants and trapping CO2 in the atmosphere.

Peeters: "The field of ELM is still in its infancy, but it promises to become a radical and disruptive alternative approach to our current methods of material production. It offers endless new possibilities. In the construction industry, for example, we are already experimenting with fungi as insulation materials. But if we can use living cells for this purpose, they could also purify the air when used in roof insulation. It is still future music, but still, biofabrication could well become the dominant production method of the 21st century."

The research project was awarded by the EU Commission under the EIC Pathfinder funding instrument. Participating partners: Royal Danish Academy, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Ghent University, Utrecht University, University of Oslo, University of the West of England.­eftjenodig