More and more, the world is waking up to the reality that mushrooms can do so much more than add flavor to a dish (as delicious as they are). In recent years, researchers and innovators alike have demonstrated just how versatile mushrooms are – from mushroom-based leather  and even a suit made out of mushrooms that eats your body when you die . Now, thanks to a student at Central Community College in Kearney, Nebraska, we know that mushrooms can also be used as a flotation device. Specifically, a boat!
Last September, Katy Ayers took a six-hour boat ride down Nebraska’s Platte River in a boat that she made, or rather, grew herself! The boat was made of mushroom mycelium. Mycelium is a multicellular fungus that can grow into different types of structures, like the body of a traditional capped mushroom . But it can also be grown into different shapes and sizes.
“Mushrooms are the natural recycler of our world,” said Ayers in an interview with Kerney Hub .
Ayers’ boat is a great example of how mushrooms can be used as an alternative to common items, such as plastic packing foam and, in her case, the wood of a rowboat. Ayers says that if you dispose of her mushroom boat in a landfill, it will aid in the breaking down of organic materials around it. Mushrooms would effectively help shrink the size of the landfill. And she’s not the first one to take note of this.
In June of 2016, we reported that Ikea would begin the process of switching from non-biodegradable styrofoam to mushroom packaging that is completely biodegradable. “We are looking for innovative alternatives to materials, such as replacing our polystyrene packaging with mycelium – fungi packaging,” Joanna Yarrow, head of sustainability for Ikea, told The Telegraph.
For Ayers, making a boat from mushroom mycelium was a no brainer. She says she’s begun developing an “obsession” with mushrooms and the ways they can be utilized by humans. Her interest was sparked by the documentary “Super Fungi,” which she was assigned to watch for a class in 2018. The documentary showed different ways that mushrooms could be made into everything from cancer medication to household cleaners. And like a mushroom rooted in rich, nutritious organic material, her interest couldn’t help but grow.
“The more I found out, the deeper I got,” said Ayers. Some utilizations for mushrooms astonished her, including using mushrooms as a national security measure.
“NASA built a drone out of it,” Ayers added. “So, when it crashes, nobody knows that we’re spying on them because it disintegrates.”
After seeing that everything from household cleaners to NASA drones could be made from mushroom mycelium, she decided to give engineering an object out of mushrooms a try herself. The object she chose?
But who exactly do you even talk to when you decide you’d like to make a boat out of mycelium? Do you go digging around until you find enough mycelium for your boat? For Ayers, that was a man named Ash Gordon, the owner of Nebraska Mushroom LLC in Grand Island, Nebraska. She reached out to Gordon by email to inquire about acquiring the necessary materials to build a boat out of mushrooms. She offered to work with him for free to learn more about mycelium, but he insisted on offering her a job.
The exact idea of making a boat out of mushrooms didn’t come to her immediately. Initially, she considered building a fort out of mycelium to test how well mushrooms could insulate a structure. But then, upon realizing that the mushroom mycelium was rather buoyant and waterproof, she decided to see how feasible it would be to build a boat of out the material. As it turns out: pretty feasible!
Before she could begin on her boat, Ayers created a steam table out of a $70 wood steamer that she would use to create the wood frame of the boat. Then, as if making a piñata, she used paper-mache to make a top and bottom mold of the boat. The paper-mache would serve as a nutritious substrate for the mycelium to grow. Once the mycelium was applied, it was a matter of waiting for her new boat to grow. And grow it did! 14 days later, she had a boat made of mushrooms.
Initially, the mycelium ate through the paper-mache entirely, after a few coats of paint, she was confident that the boat would have no trouble floating. And she was right!
“Myconoe, the eight-foot canoe I grew from mycelium last summer. It is still in great condition and fruits after each float,” Ayers wrote in an update on Facebook.  Imagine that! A mushroom boat that, if made from edible mycelium, you can even eat.
Before taking her boat out on its maiden voyage, she showcased it at the local state fair. “I want to get people excited about mushrooms,” she said. “There’s so much to be excited for and so many different areas to go into.”
To Ayers, the possibilities that mushrooms hold are still largely unexplored by researchers. She hoped that her boat would open some eyes to the sheer potential mushrooms have to transform our lives.
Sailing a mushroom boat down the Platte River did nothing to stymie her interest in mushrooms, but in fact, quite the opposite. Ayers and Gordon continue to work together on various mycelium-related projects, making common items out of mushrooms. The two are currently working on growing a chair out of mushroom mycelium. Eventually, she hopes that many common things will be made from mushrooms.
“In 100 years, I think people will be growing their laptops out of it, and phone cases,” Ayers said. “It’ll take a while, but it’ll get there.”
Ayers’ incredible work building Myconoe did not go unnoticed. “The fungus got me a scholarship to CCC (in Columbus) doing research that’s fully funded by the National Science Foundation. And it’s a full-ride scholarship, so food, books, everything is paid for, and I have to do research. But really, I get to do research,” she said.
Ayers hopes to move on to CCC to get a bachelor’s degree in sustainability, then a Ph.D. in mycology. And from there?
“Then hopefully identify all of the Nebraska mushrooms that get kind of pushed under the rug.”