Could Fungi Build Colonies On The Moon Or Mars?

Could future homes on the moon and mars me made of fungi? We will explore myco-architecture and the potential for colonization in space.

Video of the day February 1st 2020

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From whether it’s even possible to do it, to what it might mean for the future colonization of space, join us as we ask, ” Could Future Homes on the Moon and Mars Be Made of Fungi?”

Myco-Architecture: Growing Habitats

I know what you’re thinking, “That’s completely disgusting! Why in the world would we want to make colonies out of fungi? How could we even live in that!?!” And yeah, on a certain level…it is disgusting. But believe it or not, there are a lot of scientists out there in the world right now that are wondering if this is our best way to make colonies on places like the moon or Mars. Which obviously are our “biggest contenders” for life outside of Earth (at least in terms of distance and likelihood of us actually making that happen).

This “belief” was grown (pun intended) via the myco-architecture project out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, and their basis is this, they think that they can “grow” habitats that we can live on.

“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.”

Now would this mean that the fungi themselves would be alone in regards to resources that we would use to build habitats? Actually, no, the fungi themselves would be within a structure that would be brought with the astronauts. They would go and unfold something like a base structure (think like a tent if you will) and then they’d add water to the fungi to get it to grow. Once the fungi has spread over the entire structure, we’d be able to live in it.

Progress and Challenges

What’s more, because the structure itself would be in a “container” if you will it won’t harm the Martian soil. Which we would need intact for various studies and other project like growing crops and such. Should this work, this would allow much more portable habitats to be made, and they would be done in a much quicker amount of time, especially in regards to first contact missions with planets and moons that we might live on. The astronauts can reside in the spacecraft they came down in while the fungi habitat grows, and then once it’s ready, they can theoretically live in it full-time.

Now you might be thinking, “Wait, can they really do that right now?” Uh…no, they can’t. BUT, they are working on it, which is a key factor. NASA is one of the people pushing this to be made. Specifically, 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. Which I know sounds VERY sci-fi, but believe it or not, we already have things on this world that do those kinds of things. Like using the cells of a person to do various things, or using brain scans to try and make A.I., it’s along those lines, but obviously in a different branch and field.

As for where this almost literal ground-breaking research is right now, it’s in the early stages of development, but they are working hard to make it work. Phase 1 is as basic as you can get, they’re trying to see if they can manipulate, or maybe even “program”, the fungi into doing this kind of task. They’ve even done some experiments with the fungi to make it grow certain ways. One test had the fungi try to make a “stool”. After two weeks of growth, the size was impressive, but the shape…let’s just say it looked like something you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole and move on.

Fungal Habitat Design

I know you’re likely still having a hard time picturing how fungi could grow into habitats. I mean, it’s not like we’re going to live in a mushroom house, right? And no, we won’t (and if we do, I’m eating the house, I’m just saying). Rather, it’s a very specific part of the fungi that NASA and other scientists are trying to manipulate: mycelia. More than likely, you don’t even know what that is, but in basic terms, it’s the threads that fungi use to build themselves. For example, if you think about mushrooms, the reason that fungi can build that shape is because of the mycelia. The these can go and make structures of various shapes and sizes and do it with such accuracy that you’d think it was by grand design or expert planning and not just some random thing.

To that end, scientists are working on whether they can influence the mycelia to do what THEY want. Including making a surface that would be akin to leather, which they feel it can do under the right circumstances. And if they can get it to do that, they might be able to manipulate it further into making structures on Mars that we can live in.

Not that this would be easy for the record, it would be very difficult to make it happen like we want to, but we’re trying. Why would it be difficult? Think about it. What do WE need to live on Mars or the moon right now? The first thing is shelter, but the shelter is more than just a shell. If we just needed a shell we could make something compactable and just take it up there, it’s not that simple. We need a shelter that’ll protect us from the elements, including the sun, various radiation, and more.

Not to mention, that shelter would be best if we have actual Oxygen to breathe. Because what’s the point of a “home” if we’re just in our spacesuits all day long, am I right?

Ironically though, the mycelia does have a way it can provide for that via its natural processes and cyanobacteria. This specific kind of bacteria would use sunlight (which would be able to be used both on the moon and Mars) and then would be used to both strengthen the structure itself, while also going and giving us the breathable air we need. It’s basically an enhanced form of Photosynthesis. But instead of just making food for itself and exhaling Oxygen, it’s helping make the mycelia.

Here’s an outline of what the “home” the mycelia” would create would be like:

“Pieces come together in an elegant habitat concept with a three-layered dome. The outer-most layer is made up of frozen water ice, perhaps tapped from the resources on the Moon or Mars. That water serves as a protection from radiation and trickles down to the second layer – the cyanobacteria. This layer can take that water and photosynthesize using the outside light that shines through the icy layer to produce oxygen for astronauts and nutrients for the final layer of mycelia.”

That “final layer” is what we would live in. It would be hardened so we could walk around and do things without worrying about damaging the structure, and then it would actually kill off the innermost mycelia to make sure they don’t get out and hurt the astronauts or Mars itself.

It’s a massive process, but also one that could see a lot of benefits. In fact, there are scientists who think that once they work out how to turn these into habitats, that they could be used for things like heat emitting, making sure the humidity of an area is good, water filtration, and more. These fungi, these mycelia could well and truly be the building blocks on which fully-functional colonies on Mars are born!

And…it might not just be for Mars. After all, if it works on a planet far away, it would work on Earth…

“When we design for space, we’re free to experiment with new ideas and materials with much more freedom than we would on Earth,” said Rothschild. “And after these prototypes are designed for other worlds, we can bring them back to ours.”

Cost Reduction and Sustainability

Surprisingly? Not really if you think about it. After all, our planet is in need of an overhaul in terms of use of environment and how we build/grow things. The fossil fuel crisis is growing with each and every year we exist. So imagine now if whole areas were built from this fungi? The emissions from fossil fuels would be much lower, there wouldn’t be any major damage to the environment, costs for building would likely be WAY down, and more. We’re not saying that this is going to happen RIGHT NOW, but they are thinking about it. And IF it works on the moon and Mars like intended, it could be brought back to Earth in a larger scale without fear or long shipping or “damage” while traveling across space. 

We could potentially one day have a truly “green” planet. And that is exciting to most people.

Now at this point, you might understand why humanity is looking at this for a “grander scale” colonization option. But you still might be wondering why we should bother with this (which admittedly does have risks and potential problems that need to be solved before implementation) when we have a tried and true building process right now that we KNOW works and that we KNOW can sustain us on the moon and Mars should we get there in the form of colony building missions.

And that’s true, we DO have the capabilities to do such things, but as we noted earlier…there’s a great big cost to do it, and it’s only going to get more costly over time until said colonies are sustainable.

Think about it, actually, just think about how many MILLIONS of dollars it takes to make a single spaceship. Just one, just one that would be the “landing party” for the moon or Mars colonizations. We’re talking hundreds of millions from start to finish. In fact, it’s believe that the new rockets NASA are making will cost $500 million dollars total to make happen. That’s a lot of money, and that’s just for one launch.

So now, imagine that you need to get that team to the moon (let’s just start there) and then get them ALL the supplies, materials, tools, and more to get them to build the actual colony. We’re talking billions of dollars without breaking a sweat, and that’s just to build what would likely be the first colony “dome”. Once you start making more? That price multiplies per colony.

And let’s not forget, that price is just to get the things there to make the outer shell…what about what goes inside of it? Yeah, we need places to live, places to work, places to eat, places to mingle, and you have to build ALL of that inside the dome. That’s time, effort, money, and more. And again, that’s for one colony dome.

Oh, and how are you going to power this thing so that there is electricity in every home to light the way? Or keep the atmosphere pressurized? Or make sure that there is oxygen to breathe? Well, you’re going to need a LOT of energy to make that happen, which means you’ll need either a generator, or solar panels (which on the moon is honestly the best option) and we can go on and on.

The cost of a colony on another world is quite literally astronomical. So if there is ANY way that we can cut costs without cutting the resources we need to survive, we’re going to do it, and this fungi idea might sound crazy, but it’s something that would be easy to do, quick to form if done correctly, would give us much of what we need, and can open up doors for other ways to get the colony made.

The Future of Fungi-Based Colonization

Now yeah, there are obviously some things that the fungi can’t provide. Like we would still need to find a way to make food and water on the moon or Mars. We’d need to be able to make electricity available in our new “fungi homes“, and there may be a way to get around that with bioluminescence, but we’d need electricity for other things obviously. Don’t forget about gravity either! We’d need a steady source of gravity to make sure our bodies don’t wither over time.

And of course, while the homes may be able to provide oxygen, we’d need to make sure that the shell is strong enough to last long term. Because if something were to go wrong say…after a month of use, then it’s a short-term solution and not a long-term one and thus we’re back to the literal square one.

But could this really be our future? It’s possible, and that’s the most important thing right now, that we have an idea, we have a thought of where this COULD go, we may not be there yet, but we’re getting there step by step.

The colonization of space is right now the most important thing that humanity is working on in many respects, especially with everything that’s going on with the Earth itself involving Global Warming and such. We desire now more than ever to go to the stars and start a new chapter of our lives there. But doing that is more than just flying there (which many companies are working on making faster and cheaper space travel), it’s about living there. It won’t be easy for the first set of colonists, and it’ll take time to get to a fully sustainable city.

But there is hope! And projects like this one with the fungi are one of many that are trying to craft the space colonies of our dreams. Sure, it may look and sound disgusting, but if it works? And it works well? You won’t mind it as much when you’re living on Mars or the moon and realizing how far humanity has come.

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