The sturdy stools and spongy cushions made at an upstate New York factory are formed with fungus. Ecovative Design is a business staking its growth on mycelium, the thread-like "roots" of mushrooms, the AP reports. The mycelium grows around small pieces of stalks and stems to create a material that can be molded into soft packaging for glassware or pressed into the boards used for the footstools they recently began selling. "It's like growing a tree in the shape of your furniture," says Ecovative co-founder Gavin McIntyre. "But rather than a tree, we're using mushrooms." Other researchers worldwide are trying to commercially grow fungi, bacteria, and proteins into clothing and building materials.
While the field is still more about promise than actual products, companies are working on making bricks without kilns, leather without cows, and silk without spiders. Proponents see micro-organisms as factories of the future, displacing energy-intensive manufacturing with more sustainable models. Andrew Pelling of the University of Ottawa, who runs a biophysical manipulation lab, believes the technology has a lot of promise, but we shouldn't underestimate how complex the biology is. "We're living in a biological stone age now," he says. "I think there are still a lot of mysteries to figure out before we have real full control to dial in anything you want to grow or make or repair. And for me, that's the exciting part."