Why Scientists Used Graphene Nanoribbons to Engineer Bionic Mushrooms

Imagine the world…powered by mushrooms. No, I’m not on drugs, this is an actual
scientific thing–we’ve now invented mushrooms that produce electricity, no fossil fuels
required. Let me explain: researchers at the Stevens
Institute of Technology just created what they’re calling a bionic mushroom—a fungus
they’ve modified to produce electricity! It really is basically any old mushroom—this
team bought those little white button mushrooms you can get at the grocery store to throw
in your salad or pasta sauce—but with a few special additions. First of all, mushrooms are much more exciting
than they may seem at first glance. They are host organisms for their own microbial
communities, acting as little homes for other microorganisms like bacteria. We also know that certain bacteria have electricity-producing
properties. Cyanobacteria, for example, is an extremely
diverse group of bacteria that are photosynthetic, meaning they make sunlight into energy. This photosynthetic process produces high-energy
electrons, which can then be intercepted and used to produce an electric current. And voila, you have a living solar panel–otherwise
known as a biophotovoltaic cell. So how do we keep these bacteria alive in
time spans long enough for them to be practically useful? This is where the mushroom comes back in,
with its nice and comfy nutrients and pH and moisture, which help those bacteria feel right
at home. One of the coolest parts of this experiment–and
yes, it gets even cooler than biophotovoltaic cells–is that the bacteria are printed onto
their mushroom habitat. These living organisms can be loaded into
just a regular paper printer as a bioink, which is already insane. But in this particular case they were deposited
by a 3D printer in the desired structure and pattern onto their support matrix–which in
this case is the mushroom. And how do we get the electricity out of this
bionic mushroom? Graphene. In addition to the bacterial bioink, the researchers
also added a network of 3D-printed graphene nanoribbons to their mushroom, what you could
call an ‘electronic ink’. The graphene is what taps into the bacterial
cells, intercepting the electrons, and transferring them into a small electric current. In future experiments, we could just add sunlight,
wire a couple of those ingenious fungi together, and ‘ta-da’: a light bulb comes on. All natural clean electricity, baby! This kind of project is what scientists are
calling engineered symbiosis –exploiting an existing relationship between two or more
organisms for humanity’s benefit. And this brilliant light bulb of an idea has
appeared over the heads of scientists all over the world. MIT engineers have embedded specially-designed
nanoparticles into plant leaves, creating plants that glow. Other research has tapped into the existing
relationship between plant roots and bacteria to design plants that are particularly good
at binding heavy metals, making plants that could be used for environmental remediation. And another super exciting microbe project
has genetically engineered symbiotic gut bacteria in mosquitoes to stop the parasite that causes
malaria in its tracks inside the mosquito. In finding solutions to humanity’s toughest
problems, like developing clean energy and combating disease, scientists are looking
to nature for inspiration and for ingenious hacks into life’s carefully balanced systems. The resulting projects could just give us
the answers we’re looking for, and help us preserve those natural systems that have
given us so much. It’s not exactly same, but you may have
actually already made a voltaic cell at home, using a potato attached to some wires and
nails. Does that count as biovoltaic cell? Let us know–what’s the coolest electronic
thing you’ve made out of a household vegetable? Make sure to subscribe to Seeker to catch
the inside scoop on science and tech stories like this as they break, and thanks for watching.

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