No circular bioeconomy without fungal biotechnology

Degrading plastic with microbial enzymes

An article by Professor J. Philipp Benz (Technical University of Munich, TUM School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan, Wood Research Munich – Wood Bioprocesses) and Professor Vera Meyer (Technische Universität Berlin, Institute of Biotechnology, Department of Applied and Molecular Microbiology)

Fungal biotechnology is surprisingly versatile and has established itself as a platform technology for countless branches of industry. We are seeing new and revolutionary developments, especially in the area of fungal-based materials that will find applications in all kinds of industrial sectors, e.g. as furniture, packaging, building materials, insulation, and even textiles. Thus, fungal biotechnology has a crucial, but often invisible impact on our day-to-day lives.

The EUROFUNG think tank, an international consortium of academia and industry headed by Professor Vera Meyer from the TU Berlin, recently published a white paper that highlights the future opportunities offered by fungal biotechnology for a circular and sustainable bioeconomy.

This open access publication discusses how fungal biotechnology can contribute to replacing petroleum-based synthetics with fungal-based materials, how mushrooms can feed a growing global population as a vegan meat substitute, and how the pharma industry can use fungi as a "microbiological pharmacist" to ensure healthy ageing in humans.

Fungal biotechnology is an innovation driver

Fungi are superbly efficient decomposers and can break down complex renewable plant-based raw materials into their monomeric constituent parts. However, they are also champions of synthesis and can process these constituent parts, transforming them into a wide-range of different products.

This combination of valuable abilities is unique in the world of biology and makes fungi outstanding biotechnological production machines. They are used as cell factories in numerous applications, for example in the food and fodder industry, in pharmacy, in the energy sector, in the chemicals industry and in textiles.

Furthermore, fungi are the only microorganisms that have evolved to fully degrade lignocellulose – the main constituents of renewable resources from agriculture and forestry. Without mushrooms, in other words, the global carbon cycle would collapse entirely, and it would be much more difficult for us to make the fullest possible use of renewable biomass, which is a declared objective of the bioeconomy.

If humankind wishes to end its dependence on petroleum, fungal biotechnology is an essential driver of innovation. It offers sustainable solutions for the transition from today's petroleum-focused economy to a biobased circular economy, opens up new ways of ensuring food security amid rising demand from a growing population, and provides us with new concepts for how to guarantee human, animal and plant health in the future (the "One Health" approach).

Are we about to see a fungal revolution?

Yes, say the experts. Springboard innovations are currently being launched in a number of fields, e.g. in the area of novel materials, climate-neutral food supply and the development of new medical drugs. This requires not only substantial investments, however; it must also be accompanied by an exchange with society and the expansion of fungal-based research.

There is still considerable untapped and dormant potential in various fields of application. If this potential is fully exploited, fungal biotechnology will make an essential contribution to achieving ten of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals.