Interview Han Wösten, prof. Microbiology

Strawberry Earth screenpr Han Wösten

 Interview series for Strawberry Earth, called ‘Sustainable Masterminds’, with scientists, designers and other experts in sustainability and design. 

Hi there! We’re back with number 4 from our series Sustainable Masterminds. This time we’re discussing micro-organisms with Han Wösten, professor Microbiology and head of the Biology department at Utrecht University. Han is well known for his work with fungi: a group of micro-organisms including the mushrooms, yeasts, moulds and mildews. Most of the time we aren’t really fond of those are we? That’s because we may not know about all the good stuff micro-organisms bring to our lives. One kilo of micro-organisms are in and on your body right now, every day. We couldn’t live without them. Han and his researchers have discovered amazing fungus skills that shook up the world of microbiology. Furthermore, Han’s collaborations with designers led to groundbreaking new materials and products. Han shines a light on these ‘dirty little creatures’.

Han, let’s start with a personal question. What type of behaviour reveals instantly that you’re a fungus lover?
When I am on vacation, I always intend to find the local variety of the mushroom Schizophyllum commune, or, in Dutch, ‘het waaiertje’. If I can’t find one, it’s not a very good vacation! I am member of a Schizophyllum-group called ‘De Waaiertjesclub’. When one of us returns from vacation the first question is ‘did you find the local variety?’ We’re most impressed if it’s picked from a nice location. Through the years we have collected over a hundred different waaiertjes, taken from places like the Chinese Wall, the Japanese Imperial Palace and the Kremlin.

Back to Utrecht. How does your average working day look like?
Well, I love doing research, it has always been the driving force in my work. But these days, to be honest, I only have the time for hands-on research one day a year; that’s on a Sunday with my twelve-year-old son. The rest of the year I am teaching, managing and supervising researchers and designers.

Name a remarkable highlight of your work.
Microbiologists have always thought that all hyphae (the ‘filaments’ that make up the mycelium network, MH) in a mycelium were identical. That’s why fungi have always been regarded as rather simple creatures. But we’ve proved that hyphae are not identical at all. They respond differently to the environment and they can do different tasks like the organs in our body. Before this discovery, researchers would study the mycelium as a whole and the results have always been an average of all the different tasks and compositions in it. Now we know that we should examine every part of the mycelium separately.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about micro-organisms?
Micro-organisms are mostly associated with diseases, decay and death, so basically, bad things. But most of the micro-organisms are extremely useful. They’re used to produce antibiotics, food, feed, enzymes and they help us to clean water and contaminated soils.

Have you ever been surprised by smart mushroom ‘behaviour’?
Yes. Basically, all experts know that fungi are able to close the hyphae with little ‘doors’, to prevent vital saps from flowing outwards when the mycelium is damaged. We’ve discovered, more or less accidentally, that fungi can also open and close these doors in non-emergency situations. They use this system to control specialization of hyphae. We stumbled upon it because we used a new, highly precise laser cutter, that offered us an even better exploration of the system. We never thought the laser cutter would give us a result like this.

What’s your favourite fungus?
My absolute favourite is the aforementioned Schizophyllum commune, the ‘waaiertje’. But as a dish I prefer chanterelles.

Yes, chanterelles are delicious! Where do you buy yours?
I prefer to pick them myself…I know the chanterelle well enough to feel safe collecting it in the wild. When I am in Italy with my family we always go on a little chanterelles-picking-trip and then we make a nice pasta with it.

Wow, that’s awesome. Besides the nutritional benefits, what else do fungi do for us?
Fungi make enzymes that are used in the food and textile industry. Some enzymes are used in bleaching processes for jeans. Other enzymes are able to convert starch to glucose for beverages, candy and cookies. We found that only 1% of the hyphae produce enzymes. We need to find out which genes are responsible for enzyme-production, so we can make a mycelium with 100% enzyme-producing hyphae. Furthermore we are making biomaterials with fungi, to replace plastics. Mycelium is able to grow through stuff like garbage and sawdust. The enzymes will partially degrade the material and glue together whats left of it. As a result, the hyphae turn the waste into a strong, reinforced material. American company Ecovative uses it for insulation materials and packaging.

What new material would you love to develop?
We want to take it to the next level and develop materials with new characteristics. For instance, materials that mix the characteristics of rubber and hardwood. In the future, fungal based materials will be used in construction work, for houses and furniture, and as textile.

What would be the next big thing in microbiology? What are you and your colleagues all ‘hunting’ for?
That’s hard to say, because microbiology covers a huge group of species. The group ‘fungi’ alone consists of millions of different species; that’s more than all plants and animals together. And then there’s all the bacteria and the algae, they’re also micro-organisms. So you can’t really speak of ‘the’ microbiologist.

Aha, thanks for clearing that up. Rephrase: what are you hoping to find yourself?
The most important goal in my work is to understand how a fungus grows and reproduces in nature.

Reproduction, interesting. So, how do fungi do it?
It’s very complicated. In fact, they can reproduce in all kind of different ways. Some fungi have males and females that mate. Mating results in a fusion of the male and female. Other fungi do not have two sexes (male and female) but can have thousands of sexes. Fungi can also reproduce by making clones or by self-fertilization. So, they have intriguing reproductive behaviour.

For what type of environmental problem could microbiology offer solutions?
For heavy metal pollution in water and soils, for instance. Certain types of fungi are able to absorb heavy metals from soil and ‘store’ them in mushroom tissue. We can collect the heavy metals by harvesting the mushrooms. Dutch company Paques in Balk is famous for its cleaning processes based on micro-organisms. The next step – a colleague just published an article about this in Nature Communications – is to mix soil with certain bacteria to make it naturally pest-resistant so you don’t need pesticides. A lot of experiments are being executed in this field. The same type of ‘harvesting’ works for gold as well.

For gold? Tell us about these little golddiggers.
Micro-organisms are being pumped into the mines where they release gold particles from the mineral. The water with the micro-organisms and the gold, is pumped out of the mine and after that, the gold is separated from the water.

Could you name a few institutes and designers that you’ve worked with?
I’ve worked with Studio Livin on their project Fungi Mutarium, in which fungi ‘digest’ plastic and turn it into an edible substance. The project won the Braun Sustainability Award. I am also part of the Mediamatic Myco Design Lab and have worked with researchers Maurizio Montalti, Caroline de Roy, Rosalie Bak, Marieke Broertjes, Kristel Cojak en Aniela Hoitink on developing fungus-based materials.

Who do you see as a true ‘Sustainable Mastermind’ and why?
I admire Gunter Pauli a lot. He is one of the pioneers of the blue economy and member of the Club of Rome. I have experienced that he can give highly inspiring presentations.

What’s your favourite sustainable product currently in the market?
That’s clear: edible mushrooms like the champignon. The mycelium of these fungi convert a low quality waste stream such as straw into a high quality food product. Mushrooms are rich in protein and fibre, minerals, vitamins and anti-cancer compounds.

What’s your maybe-not-so-sustainable guilty pleasure?
I take very long showers. My children can’t stand it and say it’s unfair because they are not allowed to do that. I tell them it is the only luxury thing I allow myself and I enjoy it very much!

Do you have a golden tip for Sustainable Masterminds-to-be?
Yes, I think students, and people in general, should set high standards and big goals. Whether you’ll get there or not, it is always good to think big and to challenge yourself as much as possible.

Published @ Strawberry Earth//Dec 8, 2015//© Miranda Writes//