In a world in which the circular economy is driven by microbes, an underground fungal network transports nutrients to their dedicated locations. Follow a day in the life of a municipal fungal engineer as they reflect on the wonders of such a fungal system.
Read below the flash fiction story “Municipal Fungal Engineer” by Rokas Juodeikis, shortlisted in the top ten stories for the #FEMSmicroBlog Writing Competition on “How Microbiology will Change our Future”.
Read on this link: all shortlisted stories.
Municipal Fungal Engineer
As the disposal unit shreds my morning coffee grounds, I still remember the first day I went down to what used to be the municipal sewer seeing the massive fungal hyphae illuminated by faint blue light stretching out in all directions. Today, my coffee grounds will be its breakfast.
It’s been six months since I started to work as an engineer for the Municipal Fungal System. The self-driving electric car taking me to my first assignment speeds through busy traffic in what almost looks like a choreographed dance. The streets are flanked by massive columns filled with bubbling green liquid reminding me of modern art installations.
One might think that their purpose becomes clearer at night when they light up the city streets. But in fact, it is far more complicated. A colleague once explained the incredible engineering that went into designing the columns and the microalgae that inhabit them.
“During the day, they capture energy from the sun and emit it as light at night. I believe they took the genetic information from bioluminescent shrimps… The same genes were used to light up your fun-guy down below. Funny enough, lighting the streets is a small part of what they provide. Most of the energy produced is converted into biomass and flushed to feed the fungal system below while the wastewater used to grow the algae ends up purified, leaving fresh clean water for you to make your morning coffee. The air pushed through the columns is purified and the carbon dioxide we exhale is captured and converted into biomass. The released air actually has a calibrated oxygen proportion and is filled with natural fragrances making the city smell like you’re taking a stroll through the woods… Before taking this job, I used to work with similar columns which have been developed for desalination and metal recovery from seawater, although they end up losing their green colour and don’t smell as nice”.
My first stop is one of the fungal feed processors. The whole system reminds me of leafcutter ants, which farm a fungus by feeding leaves to it. All municipal biological waste is collected, homogenized and partially sterilized using a mix of specially designed bacteriophages to remove any harmful bacteria. The biomass is then used to feed the fungus via the converted sewage system. It seems crazy to think that people used to run open waste there…
During my stop at the food processor, I received a call about an issue with the feeding pipe at one of the fruiting facilities nearby.
Entering the five-story glass warehouse my lungs are filled with the earthy smell common to these facilities. I raise my head to admire the rows of fungal hyphal pillars, rising from the sewage system underground all the way to the top. Automated tending robots whiz up and down the columns, tending and picking the various ripe fruiting bodies produced by the fungus.
One of the workers directs me to the pipe in question, which appears to be blocked. “Why can’t they fix this in-house?” I think to myself while flushing the system just to realize that only three people run the whole facility providing enough food to feed over fifty thousand people. “They must have their hands full”.
Once I am finished, I decided to inspect the small fermentation plant next door. Some of the produce from the fruiting facility is processed here using a range of bacteria. The facility also carries out the fermentation of cocoa and coffee beans as well as kombucha. As an avid enthusiast of all of these, I feel it is my moral obligation to make sure this facility runs smoothly.
My final stop is just outside town, at the biofuel facility. The fungus here produces human-sized pods filled with a sugary substrate encased in a shellfish-like casing. These are harvested and inoculated with engineered bacteria which convert the sugary substrate into fuel. It is my responsibility to inspect the pods which are then used as transport containers after the fermentation is complete.
It never ceases to amaze me how the underground fungal network collects and distributes the nutrients used throughout the whole country. Food, bioplastics, clothing fibres and construction materials, all of these and more are generated from the fungus. I can only wonder what my morning coffee grounds will end up as…
ⓒ FEMS/the author
Dr. Rokas Juodeikis is a postdoctoral researcher at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, UK. Currently, he is engineering gut microbes and microbe-host interactions and has experience in pathway engineering for the generation of small molecules. He is passionate about synthetic biology and its application in understanding human-host interactions and the circular economy.