(CNN) A hard, bell-shaped fungus that grows on the decaying bark of trees has been used as a fire starter for centuries, earning it the nickname “tinder fungus.”
Now, researchers are taking a closer look at the molecular structure of this strangely powerful organism — and they’ve found it could hold the secrets to replacing certain types of plastics.
Parts of the fungus, called Foms fomentarius, were found to have the same structural strength as plywood or leather, but with less weight, a step study Published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Advances.
“F. fomentarius fruiting bodies are ingenious lightweight biological designs, simple in composition but efficient in performance,” the study noted. “Growing matter using simple materials is an alternative solution to overcome the cost, time, mass production and sustainability of how we make and use things in the future.”
What makes F. fomentarius so strong?
Humans have long used F. fomentarius — sometimes called “hoof fungus” because it looks like a horse’s hoof — to harvest in the wild to feed fire. It is also used to make some clothing items including hats. But the fungus has only recently piqued the interest of the scientific community, according to the study.
Researchers at Finland’s VTT Technical Research Center sought to delve deeper into the internal structure of F. fomentarius, gaining a glimpse into the microstructures that give the fungus its unique strong and lightweight stability. Their findings are very promising, said study co-author Dr. Bejman Mohammadi, a senior scientist at VTT.
The mold has structural integrity similar to certain types of plastics and can be used to replace shock-absorbing materials used in football helmets and other sports equipment; heat and sound insulators; And even consumer product parts like headset parts, Mohammadi said by email.
F. fomentarius “has a very hard and tough protective outer layer, a soft spongy middle layer, and a strong and tough inner layer each (of which) outcompetes different types of man-made and natural materials,” Mohammadi added.
Potential use of F. fomentarius
The researchers don’t recommend it Tinder fungi must be harvested from the forest and incorporated into the industrial process. That may not be economically viable, and it takes seven to 10 years for F. fomentarius to grow to significant size, Mohammadi noted. The fungus, which is very common throughout the northern hemisphere, also plays an important role in its ecosystem, blooming on the bark of decaying beech and birch trees to aid in the decomposition process.
But researchers have taken promising steps to grow the fungus or a similar species in a laboratory environment, Mohammadi said.
“With advances in industrial biotechnology, we predict metric ton production in a matter of weeks as opposed to years of growing wild-type mushrooms,” Mohammadi wrote in an email. “For example, in our research institute, we have 1000-liter pilot-scale bioreactors.
“However, as with any start-up technology, it will take a few years before the R&D is fully implemented.”