How many of us ever consider the role played by the humble fungus when we’re cutting through the skin-like rind of Camembert or indulging in the deep and pungent flavours of Stilton or Roquefort ? Not many of us I suspect, but without these microbes none of the cheeses above would exist. These are examples of mould ripened cheeses where the fungus plays are role in generating flavour (methyl ketones in the case of Stilton and Roquefort) and a white protective skin in the case of Camembert.
Beyond the roles above, these moulds roles in generating the flavour of the have other remarkable and often overlooked properties. For example, in the case of Camembert the mould generates the rind, a highly complex living surface that protects the cheese, and defends it against microorganisms that would otherwise spoil its nutritious and creamy interior. These properties might one day form the basis of living, smart, and functional materials, that would be both self-cleaning or sterilizing.
White MycoVelvet. A test demonstrating its stain repellant properties.
Taking inspiration, from scientists at the Institute for Chemical and Bio-Engineering in Zurich, myself and artist Ninela Ivanova, isolated the moulds from Camembert, Stilton and Roquefort and simply cultured them on the surface of milk (skimmed UHT milk works best as its already sterile) to make these remarkable textiles which are essentially a living fungal biofilm. The materials have the appearance of velvet but are strongly hydrophobic, that is, they strongly repel water, which if applied to textile forms small beads and simply rolls off. A microbiological and sustainable version of GortexTM, may be just around the corner ; – )