Tinder mushrooms are as strong as wood and can hold secrets to replacing some plastics

(CNN) A tough, bell-shaped mushroom that grows on rotting tree bark has been used as a starter for fires for centuries, earning it the nickname “shell mushroom.”

Now, researchers are taking a closer look at the molecular structure of this strangely powerful organism — and they found it could hold the secrets to replacing some plastics.

Parts of the mushroom, formally called Fomes fomentarius, have been found to have similar structural strength to plywood or leather but with less weight, according to Stady Published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

“F. fomentarius fruiting bodies are ingeniously lightweight biological designs that are simple in structure yet efficient in performance,” the study noted. “Cultivating materials using simple ingredients is an alternative solution to overcome the cost, time, mass production, and sustainability of how materials are made and consumed in the future.”

What makes F. fomentarius so powerful

F. fomentarius—also sometimes called “hoof mushroom” because of its visual resemblance to a horse’s hoof—has been long used by humans harvested in the wild to feed fires. It was also used to create some items of clothing, including hats. According to the study, mushrooms have only recently piqued the interest of the scientific community.

Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Center in Finland sought to analyze the internal structure of the fungus F. fomentarius in more depth, and to get a glimpse into the exact structures that give the mushroom its unique strength and light weight. Study co-author Dr. Bizman Mohammadi, a senior scientist at VTT, said what they found was very promising.

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Fungi have similar structural integrity to certain grades of plastic and can be used to replace shock-absorbing materials used in things like soccer helmets and other sports equipment; Heat and sound insulators. Even consumer product parts, such as headphone parts, Mohammadi said via email.

Mohammadi added that F. fomentarius “has a very tough, protective outer layer, a softer spongy middle layer, and a strong, rigid inner layer that can (each) outperform a different class of synthetic and natural materials.”

Possible use of F. fomentarius

The researchers do not suggest The tinder fungus must be harvested from the wild and destined for the industrial process. Mohammadi noted that this would not be economically viable, and that F. fomentarius takes seven to ten years to grow to a large size. Fungi, very common in the northern hemisphere, play an important role in their ecosystem, blooming on the rotting bark of beech and birch trees to aid the decomposition process.

But Mohammadi said researchers have taken promising steps toward growing mushrooms or a similar species in a laboratory environment.

“With advances in industrial biotechnology, we expect metric tons to be produced in a matter of weeks unlike wild mushrooms that take years to grow,” Mohammadi wrote in an email. “For example, in our research institute, we have 1,000-liter experimental scale bioreactors where this can be implemented.

“However, like any start-up technology, it will take a few years of research and development to be fully realized.”

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