Fungal Future: Exploring the Potential of Mushroom Computing
By Dani Lewis
From nutrition to medicine, mushrooms have a rich history of being used for various purposes. Most recently, fungi have caught the attention of computer scientists. Researchers have proven that, much like computers, mushrooms use networks to exchange signals and communicate.
An exciting recent advancement in this field comes from the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England in Bristol, United Kingdom. Their research team announced an unprecedented discovery—a living computer powered by mushrooms.
Professor Andy Adamatzky founded the Unconventional Computing Laboratory in 2001 with the mission of developing computers for the next century. “We employ complex dynamics in physical, chemical, and biological media to design novel computational techniques, architectures, and working prototypes of non-linear media-based computers,” explains Adamatzky on the Unconventional Computing Laboratory’s website.
Adamatzky and his team conduct their research in an environment that appears to merge technology and nature. They are revolutionizing computing with wetware, combining living tissue with hardware and software. In other words, their team integrates organic matter, in this case oyster mushrooms, with electronic components.
Mushrooms were chosen as an ideal organism to experiment with because their mycelium, the fungal body, responds to environmental stimuli much like the human brain. Mycelia has the capability to transmit electrical impulses and retain memory, according to the Popular Science report “Inside the lab that’s growing mushroom computers" by Charlotte Hu.
Unlocking Mycelium’s Potential
When mushrooms are connected to the same network of mycelia underground, they can communicate with electrical signals over long distances. With this knowledge, Adamatzky and his team sought to incorporate fungal communication in a motherboard. They recorded spikes of electrical activity using microelectrodes connected to the mushrooms. In their experiments, they correlated the presence or absence of a spike to a zero or one, mimicking computer programming language.
"Just like the animal brain, the fungal mind is aware of and responds to its environment."
- Professor Nicholas Money, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
"We're the first lab to report about spiking activity of fungi measured by microelectrodes, and the first to develop fungal computing and fungal electronics,” said Adamatzky, in theTech Spot article “Scientists have developed a 'living PC' made from mushrooms” by Cal Jeffrey. In their fungal computer, the mycelium acts as a conductor and replacement for electrical components like the central processing unit (CPU) or memory.
Adamatzky and his team proved that if you stimulate mycelium at two separate points, faster communication is possible because of the increase in conductivity. As this communication becomes faster and more reliable, memory can be established within the mycelium. Interestingly, brain cells form habits in a similar fashion when repeated behaviors result in a circuit of automatic activity, according to the Scientific American report “How the Brain Makes and Breaks Habits” by Ann M. Graybiel and Kyle S. Smith.
The Mushroom Brain
There is a widening group of researchers who are studying the fungal brain, including Professor Nicholas Money of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He argues a new theory that cellular consciousness resides in mushrooms. Many scientists debate what determines consciousness, but an increasing number of researchers define consciousness by an organism’s awareness and reaction to its surroundings.
“Just like the animal brain, the fungal mind is aware of and responds to its environment,” stated Money, in the Research Outreach article “New theories expand cognition to fungi.” In their natural habitat, mycelium can detect the presence of other organisms and react to the availability of food. To prove these theories, fungal biologists continue to study mushroom memory and conscious functioning.
Unconventional computing may be the future of information technology, but there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done. As the current evidence stands, mushroom computers cannot compare to current technology. Even though Adamatzky and his team proved increased conductivity produces faster communication, it’s not nearly the speed of traditional electronics.
“Right now, all we have are viability reports. We’re just showing that it’s feasible to perform computation, as well as fundamental logical and electrical circuits, using mycelium,” stated Adamatzky in the Firstpost feature “A Living PC: Scientists showcase a working demo of a PC powered by mushrooms.”
As research in this field continues, there is a possibility that more advanced mushroom computers could create novel methods of information processing and analysis in the future.
Dani Lewis is a contributing writer to Lab Reporter.