Internet of Mycelium (IoM) is a research and design project about human collaboration with mushrooms through the process of mycoremediation to regenerate our urban soil ecosystem in a holistic and affordable approach through nurture and care. Mycoremediation is the process of growing mushrooms to remove toxins in soil and plants via the organism's ability to decompose toxic matter and replenish needed nutrients using its root system as a nurturing and protective infrastructure under soil. This project consists of an ecosystem of digital and physical products that respond to this critical environmental question: how might we use the decomposition properties of fungi to provide communities with affordable and resilient solutions to maintaining local soil health? IoM tackles the challenge of providing accessible and affordable soil remediation solutions to local communities through a three-part service structure provided by a speculative company:
1. A customized mycoremediation kit that consists of mushroom spores trained to remediate specific soil compositions
2. An accompanying Soil Journal App that helps users record the process in a centralized platform
3. A digital Soil Lab platform where users can share their soil information and add it to a growing database of geo-located soil health data
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations, over one third of our soils are moderately or highly degraded due to erosion, loss of soil organic carbon, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution. Through the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breath, soil contamination leads to long-term neurological, immunological, and epidermal health risks. Zooming in geographically to where I live, in New York City, the Brooklyn College Soil Research Lab and New York City Urban Soil Institute evaluated 126 garden systems throughout the city pollution and ecological risk, and discovered soil lead levels significantly above the acceptable levels of 400ppm in sections of northern Brooklyn, northern Manhattan, and southern Bronx. Heavy metals, particularly lead, in soils are major hurdles for urban agriculture and gardening activities can cause public health risks.
IoM WebsiteMycoremediation Kit PageHelen Chen
IoM WebsiteMycoremediation Kit Info Tab 1Helen Chen
IoM WebsiteMycoremediation Kit Info Tab 2Helen Chen
IoM WebsiteMycoremediation Kit Info Tab 3Helen Chen
IoM Mycoremediation KitRendering 1Helen Chen
IoM SyringesRenderingHelen Chen
IoM Syringe in UseRenderingHelen Chen
IoM User Testing in SlackUser Testing for Community-based MycoremediationHelen Chen
IoM Soil Journal AppMockupHelen Chen
How IoM Works:
IoM's main product is a mycoremediation kit, with spores from a lab-engineered mushroom strain specific to localized soil samples. In addition to the kit, the company provides detailed soil testing reports (pre and post remediation), aftercare services, and knowledge-sharing platforms. After the soil is paired with a mushroom strain, IoM will send the user a set of customized mushroom spores in a syringe kit, a detailed report of the soil health in a vernacular format based on the principles of ecological succession, and instructions on how to begin the DIY mycoremediation process. The platform also has a Myco Journal App, allowing the user to upload photos of the growth process and soil change every few days, as a way to record the process and also to get feedback and input from IoM's mycoremediation experts. Finally, IoM has a digital Soil Lab that contains geo-located information about soil health in nearby areas and offers recommendations for post-mycoremediation care.
1. Soil Testing & Custom Mycoremediation Kit
The overall process, from soil testing to mycoremediation, is 12-14 weeks. The user sends soil samples to IoM, which will be tested for toxicity levels, nutrition status, and soil biota compounds. The lab will then test the remediation process with different mushroom strains to develop the optimal strain(s). The kit comes in a syringe and capsule system for life-maintenance of the spores. Additionally, to reduce waste footprint, the syringe top is reusable, as well as intuitive and ergonomic to use, with a double-ejection system.
2. Myco Journal App
IoM's services empower communities to directly respond and reclaim environmental resilience. The mycoremediation process, which takes about 6-8 weeks, should be regularly monitored. Thus, progress rests on the user's regular maintenance, embedding the principle of invested care in the process. In consideration of this, IoM has the Myco Journal App, a centralized note-taking and information-sharing platform to allow users to best provide this invested care. Users are encouraged to make entries every 2-3 days by uploading photos and filling a series of key observation points: fruiting activity, soil texture, soil-based organisms, etc. They can share their journal entries with the IoM community at large.
3. Soil Lab
Individual journal entries and observations can be shared through the app and will also appear on IoM's website in the Soil Lab section. Soil Lab is a knowledge-sharing platform that contains articles and Q&A forums, as well as a growing database of soil information at different geotagged locations from testing records. In aggregating and publishing this soil information, from pollutant levels to recommendations for local companion plants, IoM intends to encourage users to simultaneously contribute to and learn from other users.
James and Chantel are community garden managers at the 138th Street Community Garden. A recent report from Brooklyn College Soil Research Lab shows that the area where the community garden is situated has high lead levels in the soil. In response to this discovery, James and Chantel are in search of a budget-friendly solution that does not compromise the overall soil microbiome.
1. Gather soil samples, place them in envelopes with correct labeling, and send them to IoM's lab.
2. Receive a custom mycoremediation kit in 2 weeks with soil test results, DIY instructions, and links to reference videos on IoM's website.
3. Perform mycoremediation (8 weeks).
4. Use the Myco Journal App to record observations every 1-3 days and communicate any questions to IoM experts and the community.
5. Send new soil samples back after the 8-week mycoremediation process for second-round testing.
6. Receive new results and aftercare instructions.
User Research & Testing:
The initial design phase of this project was largely informed by semi-structured interviews conducted with potential users (community garden managers and new homesteaders) and insights around mushroom-growing education derived from workshops I held throughout the thesis process and from my time volunteering at the community bio-lab, Genspace. Through these interviews and desk research, I considered the user behaviors and needs based on experience levels and soil needs.
After the initial designs of IoM's products and services, I wanted to prototype the key concepts in real life. I delivered mushroom spores to eight participants and held a Zoom workshop where we prepared to grow reishi mushrooms from food and agricultural waste. After the workshop, I started a Slack channel (see Figure IoM.9) for the participants to share their observations every few days with any questions. The goal of this prototyping process was to better understand how I can design for community-based mycoremediation endeavors and user behaviors on digital knowledge-sharing platforms. Within a few days of the Slack channel's inception, people began commenting on each other's posts with questions, tips, and tricks.
Desk Research & Interviews:
The environmental remediation and clean-up services market in the U.S. is projected to value at 18.8 billion dollars in 2020, but these services are often very expensive and catered towards large agricultural and land management companies. While these industrial and chemical-based technologies are very effective at quickly removing pollutants in soil, they also compromise soil quality and health through forcefully interfering with the soil microbiome. At the same time, there is an increasing need for affordable and accessible solutions to the growing problem of soil contamination in cities and communities near brownfield lands.
In the past two decades, there have been significantly high toxicity levels in urban soil plots due to industrial waste pollution, water source pollution, and the spread of chemical materials as a result of temporal accumulation and natural disasters. In the case of New York City, the Brooklyn College Soil Research Lab and New York City Urban Soil Institute evaluated 126 garden systems throughout the city pollution and ecological risk, and discovered soil lead levels significantly above the acceptable levels of 400ppm in sections of northern Brooklyn, northern Manhattan, and southern Bronx. Heavy metals, particularly lead, in soils are major hurdles for urban agriculture and gardening activities can cause public health risks. Through the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe, soil contamination leads to long-term neurological, immunological, and epidermal diseases.
Environmentalist Leila Darwish argues that ecological healing in urban landscapes requires both government support and the establishment of methods that are accessible and empowering for the affected communities. In order to reclaim ecological resilience within communities, it is important to embed the skills and infrastructure for direct action. Echoing the environmental justice framework discussed earlier in this book, the infrastructure for local ecological justice must pair systemic policy with the toolkits that enable affected communities to gain access to the information and processes for the materialization of resilient solutions. Furthermore, extending this into a consideration of the multispecies covenant, the infrastructure of soil consists of a complex and entangled network of stakeholders that have an impact on one another through their metabolic activity and ultimately through the interspecies food chain and ecosystem at large. Thus, we must extend the notion of ecological justice beyond a human-centered model to consider the politics of soil labor as a collective activity between systems, communities, and species. By doing so, we can begin to shift the dominant perspective from solution-oriented to establishing fluid, mutualistic systems.
Mycoremediation is an affordable and interspecies approach to repairing soil damage for human-based activities and the health of soil biota. In 1997, fungi expert Paul Stamets worked with the Washington Transportation Authority to use oyster mushrooms to clean up an oil spill on an adjacent plot of land. Within 8 weeks, oyster mushrooms were fruiting on the contaminated soil patch, the soil color drastically changed from a yellow tone to a healthier brown tone, and the lead levels decreased dramatically. Similar to the work of Paul Stamets, the Amazon Mycorenewal Project is an organization that sought to use mycoremediation to remediate oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The project has extended into other parts of the world where environmental pollution is disproportionately affecting economically and racially marginalized communities.
Nevertheless, using fungal species to remediate ecological damages is still a technology in its nascent stages. Experts such as Leila Darwish and Peter McCoy point out some of the main barriers to community-based mycoremediation:
1. Microclimates and location specificity require effective mycoremediation applications to be tailored to site-specific characteristics and conditions, making it challenging to have "ready-to-go" stock on hand.
2. There is a lack of social and government funding.
3. Accessible and legible information—current protocols for soil analysis are in dry academic and scientific jargon, requiring very specific expert knowledge.
IoM attempts to address these pain points found in current mycoremediation systems, in order to imagine what the infrastructure for a feasible, community-based system would look like.