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Title: Enlisting synthetic fungal-bacterial consortia to produce multi-cellular mycelium-based ELMs with computational capability


EU nr: 101071145

Period: 01/11/2022-31/10/2026 (4 years)

Total Budget:  3,999,263

VUB Allocated Budget: 618,000€



‘Backing visionary entrepreneurs’ is what the European Innovation Council wants to achieve with their €10bn programme to identify, develop and scale up breakthrough technologies and disruptive innovations in Europe. They launched 3 financial instruments with that purpose the so-called EIC: Pathfinder, Transition and Accelerator. It is steered by an EIC Board of leading innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers. With a success rate of 10% (403 proposals evaluated of which 39 were chosen) the average EU grant is approximately €3.7 million. At VUB, Prof. dr. ir. Eveline Peeters was awarded -as beneficiary- an EIC Pathfinder Challenge grant for ‘emerging health, energy and digital technologies with as Challenge: Engineered Living Materials (ELM). This challenge stimulates the development of novel materials that are composed of cells (either microbial, plant or mammalian cells) that stay alive during the application life span and modulate the functional performance of the material in one way or another."

What is it about?

“The project FUNGATERIA will be performed by a consortium of researchers from VUB, Ghent University, Centre for Information Technology and Architecture (CITA) in Denmark, Utrecht University, University of West England and the University of Oslo. The project focuses on bringing mycelium-based materials into an “Engineered Living Material” context. Mycelium is the vegetative life form of filamentous fungi, which is abundantly present in natural soil ecosystems. It forms a network-like structure resulting in interesting material-like properties, for example, plastic-, foam- or leather-like, depending on the process conditions under which the organism is grown. The last years, we have seen a huge rise in start-up companies developing applications based on mycelium-based materials, thereby responding to the need to transition from a fossil-based to a biobased economy. Mycelium-based materials provide an environmentally sustainable solution for traditional materials in many ways: not only because they are produced from renewable biomass (for example, by using agricultural side streams), but also because they are fully biodegradable at the end of their life span thereby introducing circularity.

In current applications with mycelium-based materials, the fungal organism is killed at the end of the production process. But what if we keep the organism alive during the use of the material? We could imagine that this leads to new functionalities that would completely change a consumer's perception on how to use the product. And how can we engineer such novel functionalities, even taking it beyond the biological capabilities of the fungi in their natural context? These are the questions that the FUNGATERIA project consortium focuses on, by working together in an international and interdisciplinary context.”

So, how do I need to visualize this?

“Think of a shoe made of mycelium-based vegan leather that repairs itself when it becomes damaged. Or a biobased foam-like material that can be used as rooftop isolation on a building, but at the same time captures CO2 from the atmosphere. These are just two examples from a range of endless possibilities. Various sectors could be relevant to unlock this novel technology in the future (e.g. packaging, textile, fashion, automotive, construction or healthcare industries).

While working towards concrete applications, technology development in the FUNGATERIA project will be not only focused on the applications itself, but also on the production phase, by setting up a generic manufacturing platform that employs the biological characteristics of the fungal organism (e.g. directed growth in response to sensing the environment). A second important innovation that FUNGATERIA will bring is the exploration of growing mycelium-based materials together with bacteria, with the bacteria serving as vehicles introducing new functionalities into the living material that are not engineerable in the fungal organism itself.”

Why is it important?

“The applications developed in the FUNGATERIA project will fully harness the power of biology, while at the same time tackling challenges associated with climate change and sustainability in a near future. We want to contribute to establishing new ways of producing and using materials in our day-to-day life. This will bring us closer to a future in which an anthropogenic world is reconciled with nature.

Hereto a new research scene is needed by restructuring the current research landscape. Researchers will be inspired by a joint innovation commitment and foster a culture of interdisciplinary research collaboration by using multi-disciplinary methodologies (a.o. microbiology, synthetic biology, computing and design, social sciences and humanities). Through the involvement of social scientists in the project, crosstalk will be established with society during very early technological development, which is crucial given the disruptive nature of these new applications.

Aim (What)

FUNGATERIA addresses a development gap in mycelium-based ELMs by developing a portfolio of ELMs. This is composed of a synthetic co-cultivation consortium of a filamentous fungus and a bacterial strain. Sensing and adaptive growth of the fungal hyphae are exploited to develop an autonomous bottom-up and scalable manufacturing technology called Growth Composing (GC). This GC platform enables engineered morphogenesis of mycelium materials using robotically controlled spray nozzles that generate local air, gas or aerosol flows steering hyphal growth. In addition, bioprinting is used to deposit the inocula of the engineered bacterial strain in specific patterns and at specific times throughout the production process. Various ELM products are developed, ranging from consumer goods to applications in environmental and construction sectors, which become active through environmental cues of light, temperature and chemical attractants.


Methodology (How)

To this end, synthetic biology engineering will be implemented to use a bacterial strain as a chassis for sensor-containing genetic circuits that render advanced functionalities to the ELM throughout its life cycle, either through direct activity or by influencing the growth and morphology of the fungal partner. ELM activity is verified with probes that reveal bioelectric signalling in the materials - providing additional dimensions of control, monitoring, functionality and exploitation as actively computing devices. When no longer needed or have reached the end of their productive life, kill switches are activated either by human-controlled environmental triggers or triggers of the system itself, thereby causing the ELM to fully and quickly degrade without causing any negative environmental impact.


Impact (Why)

FUNGATERIA will be pushing the boundaries and frontiers of microbiology, synthetic biology, modelling, materials engineering, biomaterials, design, ethics and humanities into new realms.The impact covers various trans-disciplinary facets in science and society. This new generation of fungal-bacterial ELMs will pave the wave for similar future production platforms of other ELM types. FUNGATERIA targets the industrial biotechnology market and wants to make better use of biological raw material, by-products and wastes (e.g. foodwaste as feedstock for fungal-based production).  Thus, the biobased economy will form an important part of circular economy and will play an important role in decarbonising the economy. Throughout a Citizen Science anticipatory methodology, FUNGATERIA wants to produce a knowledge-base to align research objectives with ethical and regulatory requirements when advising policymakers on this game-changing platform.

Photo (Credits: Lars Dittrich)