NASA scientists are testing fungus, pursuing the possibility of building a lunar base and other space habitats from natural, living materials, according to a recent press release. The concept is simple, but profound: What if life-sustaining environments could be grown instead of built? This idea could revolutionize current planetary exploration efforts. Growing on-site structures from mushrooms is a promising prospect, a real possibility that may dramatically reduce weight and energy costs when compared to other options.
“Right now, traditional habitat designs for Mars are like a turtle — carrying our homes with us on our backs – a reliable plan, but with huge energy costs,” said Lynn Rothschild, the principal investigator on the early-stage project. “Instead, we can harness mycelia to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there.
NASA began research and development on the idea in 2018, but in 2020 scientists are continuing the work, aiming to find out just how feasible the plan is for Martian colonization. Researchers are now seeking ways to help mushroom mycelium grow in Martian soil. If they are successful, explorers could establish viable colonies by growing off-world settlements without the need to transport bulky building materials. These natural environments present the ultimate sustainability model, providing strong, lightweight living space that is also flexible, insulated, flame-retardant, radiation-protected, and self-healing. Want to add an addition? No need to hire a contractor. Just add water (or something like that). Of course the structures would be non-toxic and, at the end of their life cycle, could be plowed under to become fertilizer for future space gardens.
Dormant spores could be activated with water and the right conditions. Photosynthetic bacteria would serve as fungus food, triggering growth. The mushroom architects could be bio-engineered to extrude bioplastics, latex, and other materials. Perhaps they could even provide light through harnessing a natural property in some mushroom species, bioluminescence.
The myco-architecture prototypes are being developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is no stranger to mushroom fueled innovation, but this takes tech to new heights.
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.
This research is supported through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, known as NIAC, and is part of a field known as synthetic biology – the study of how we can use life itself as technology, in this case fungi. We’re a very long way from being able to grow useable habitats for Mars, but the early-stage research is well under way to prove the potential of these creative solutions. That work all starts with experimenting with fungi.
Science fiction often imagines a mechanized future, dominated by cold, dead metal environments and gigantic machines. But I’m rooting for a stranger, “greener” tomorrow, populated by adorable, glowing shroom rooms at home and throughout the galaxy. We could really use more sustainable building options on Earth right now. Hopefully, NASA won’t reserve these living technologies for other planets. Look for them popping up like fungal friends in a neighborhood near you.