Using fungi to produce everyday products

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology are developing techniques to produce fungi that can replace petroleum in everyday products on an industrial scale.

Many products, including detergents, cosmetics and clothes are manufactured using petroleum. The fungi employed by the Fraunhofer Institute help the researchers synthesise a variety of chemicals in a CO2 neutral way. These chemicals form the basis for cosmetics, pesticides, plastics, and much more products that previously were made with fossil fuels.

Extracting chemicals from renewable organisms doesn’t release CO2 into the atmosphere, as opposed to petroleum. And using fungi as production organisms has another major advantage: according to the researchers, the pool of potential production organisms is almost inexhaustible, as is the range of raw materials they can convert. The fungi employ a host of different metabolic pathways, with which a wide variety of products can be made.

One example of a chemical produced from fungi is malic acid. This chemical gives jams and juices a sour taste and improves the shelf life of baked goods. It can also be used as a building block for biobased polyesters. The acid is produced in moulds, where wood-based sugar or vegetable oils are converted into malic acid.

In a similar process, the researchers are able to create surface-active agents that can be used to produce detergents, emulsifiers, active ingredients for cosmetics, pharmaceutics and pesticides.

One of the fungi they use is smut fungi, which are parasites that infest plants, making them look like they have been burnt. Yeast is another, which can be used to produce molecules that are essential for synthesising novel plastics.

Currently, the main goal, aside from perfecting the process, is to scale up the production process to industrial scale.

Photo: Fraunhofer IGB