Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Oh Buoy! Mushrooms to the Rescue

MycoBuoys being prepared for deployment on the Hurricane Island experimental aquaculture farm in June 2023. (Madison Maier, Aquaculture Manager at Hurricane Island)

Janis Petzel, MD

Even if they were not dangerous to human health (which they are), plastics are almost impossible to get rid of, cannot easily be recycled, and create ugliness and pollution. Most of us want to cut back or eliminate plastics from our lives. But finding alternatives is not easy.

That is why material science research into the use of fungi to replace plastic is so exciting. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. They grow out of thread-like mycelia, which infiltrate organic matter to break it down. The mycelia are thin but mighty. You can see this in a dead tree which has decomposed but still holds its shape thanks to a mycelial network.

Mycelia can be grown in molds with plant waste to create a natural bio-composite for fire retardant insulation, packaging material, or alternatives to expanded polystyrene for floats and buoys in the aquaculture industry.

Sue Van Hook, CEO and founder of start-up company, MycoBuoys, is one of the pioneers in mycelium research for aquatics. She draws inspiration from Paul Stamets’ book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. She is doing more in retirement than many people do in theircareers, and describes a “fungal revolution” in progress.

Van Hook said, “Fungi have so much to teach us. They have been around for 1.7 billion years and have learned to adapt. They have a suite of enzymes to digest carbohydrates and are symbiotic with so many living systems.”


She served as a mycological consultant from 2007-2010, when she left her full-time job at Skidmore College in New York to join a mycelia start up called Ecovative Design, becoming the company’s chief mycologist. She spent the first six years isolating wood rot species from the wild to test their structural properties as a new bio-composite material.

Having spent childhood summers at her grandparents’ home on North Haven, an island in Penobscot Bay in Maine, Van Hook was intrigued by the idea of mycelia buoys. She grew lobster buoy prototypes in three-liter soda bottles to give them the right shape, then got feedback from Maine lobstermen. Over a decade later, friends in oyster aquaculture asked for her help getting plastic out of their operations.

Mushrooms can provide just one of many solutions to the predicted effects of plastic on the environment. (Courtesy photo)

The buoys are made from mycelia and hemp, a traditional material used for sails, lines, and caulk in sloops. Van Hook uses solar energy to dry the buoys before they go into the ocean. The buoys are much less energy-intensive to make than plastic buoys. (View to see a video from University of Utrecht in Netherlands, where they dry 3-D printed fungal furniture in an oven, as you would loaves of bread).

The natural, uncoated buoys, which have the look and feel of Styrofoam, last five months in the water, which is perfect timing for Northern oyster aquaculture (the oyster bins are sunk to the bottom of the bay to overwinter). The buoys and the algae they pick up (called biofouling) can be composted and reused as a soil amendment for a true circular economy.

Now, thanks to grants from NE SARE and SOAR, an oyster mariculture grant from The Nature Conservancy, Van Hook is testing the buoys with various plant-based coatings to see if they can last even longer in the water. She is collaborating with Abigail Barrows, microplastic researcher, oyster grower and owner of Deer Isle Oyster Company as well as 14 other oyster farmers from Beals, Maine to New York Harbor to test buoys this season. Van Hook has a couple of companies interested in making these buoys when the time comes to scale up production.

Madison Maier, Aquaculture Manager at Hurricane Island, estimates a mycelium buoy would cost about $65, while a standard plastic model, which lasts about three years before the plastic erodes in the sun, costs about $45. The cost of the mycelia buoys should come down with mass production, and Van Hook says the compost from the buoys could be sold to recoup costs.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focuses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Team and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.


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