If space agencies want boots on the Moon constructing homes/research facilities is their first hurdle. Traditional building materials create payload challenges, heavy metal and glass take up a lot of room. All that weight puts a strain on fuel requirements. Enter synthetic biology, the study of how we can use life in technology – in this case fungus, as in mushrooms used to grow self repairing, self replicating habitats.
NASA researchers call it myco-architecture. Exploring the potential of Mycelia in fungus – tiny nutrient absorbing underground threads combining with precision and networking to build complex structures we recognize as mushrooms. A statement from NASA –
“Ultimately, the project envisions a future where human explorers can bring a compact habitat built out of a lightweight material with dormant fungi that will last on long journeys to places like Mars. Upon arrival, by unfolding that basic structure and simply adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat – all while being safely contained within the habitat to avoid contaminating the Martian environment.”
A researcher holding a petri dish containing mycelia – the underground threads that make up the main part of a fungus – growing in simulated Martian soil, also known as Martian regolith. Image via NASA/ Ames Research Center/ Lynn Rothschild
A stool constructed out of mycelia after two weeks of growth. The next step is a baking process that leads to a clean and functional piece of furniture. The myco-architecture project seeks to design not only for habitats, but for the furniture that could be grown inside them as well. Image via 2018 Stanford-Brown-RISD iGEM Team/ NASA.
Mankind is pretty smug, we see ourselves as jewels in the evolutionary crown – top of the food chain, dominant species, masters of our domain, Terms like “natural order” or “balance of nature” play second fiddle to foolish notions of superiority. Language and opposable thumbs gave birth to civilization, evolution dealt us a good hand. We tend to forget nature dealt every species a great hand.
Consider a spore producing organism – no brain, nervous system or ability to move other than mature spores catching a breeze or falling to the ground – you’re pondering Fungus. Now imagine spores that only attach themselves to carpenter ants – spores able to kill hosts just outside their home, use the corpse to mature, grow new spores, and toss them to the ground. Spores guaranteed to infect oblivious ants entering the nest – now you’re pondering Zombie Ant Fungus.
Assistant professor David Hughes of the Entomology Dept. at Penn State c0-authored a paper on Zombie Ant Fungus.
“Ants are remarkably adept at cleaning the interior of the nest to prevent diseases. But we also found that this fungal parasite can’t grow to the stage suitable for transmission inside the nest whether ants are present or not.”
“What the zombie fungi essentially do is create a sniper’s alley through which their future hosts must pass. The parasite doesn’t need to evolve mechanisms to overcome the effective social immunity that occurs inside the nest. At the same time, it ensures a constant supply of susceptible hosts.” – David Hughes
Nature runs a tight ship, evolution knows when to act and react. Zombie fungus isn’t a freakish accident. Dealt the hand needed to maintain balance – a hand no different than the one we got – everything happens for a reason. there’s a reason for everything. If nature decides mankind needs a zombie fungus – use your opposable thumb to tweet #Zombiespores.