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I envision a fictional future world where fungi become an effective means of recycling massive amounts of food waste (compost) with the help of genetically engineered variants. The genetically engineered mushroom fruits might be sweet and shaped like a fruit.

What are some nutritional and aesthetic form factor considerations I should be aware of in designing edible fungi fruits? I'd like to know how far I can push fungi and what intrinsic limits they might have.

For example, can fungi be a good source of protein and amino acids? Could fungi fruits be high in sugar? Would it be possible for genetically altered fungi to exhibit some other fantastic features? Such as being capable of synthesizing fatty oils? Please advise.

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  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps if you add more details and results of your preliminary research this question will be received better. As it is now it is a bit too broad. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 9 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ I tweaked the question a bit to make it more about worldbuilding (revert if I overstepped) but it is still pretty broad, and this might be better as several questions (like: Can mushrooms be high in sugar? Can mushrooms be made with fatty acids?) $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Apr 9 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting worldbuilding scenario. Questions like "can mushrooms be made with fatty acids" would definitely be closed as "not about worldbuilding" (not to mention too dull and narrow to bother with). $\endgroup$ – Mike Serfas Apr 9 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ You might be making a misstep by thinking of fungi with "fruits" and being "sweet". Why do you need it to either? Meat is nutritious and isn't sweet at all. Or shaped like a fruit. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Apr 9 at 2:09
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with Otkin, show us your research so far. $\endgroup$ – A Rogue Ant. Apr 9 at 2:27
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Technically...

Fungi are kind of bottom-feeders. Currently, mushrooms are low in carbohydrates, low in fats, and low in protein (except in a Dr. Who episode I watched once). The fungi would need to be breaking down high-calorie materials (not generic wastes) in order to have enough energy to make all these things, even with genetic engineering. They are high in certain vitamins and minerals (see the list). Lots of things like to digest high-calorie foods, so your super-fungus has a lot of competition. You could easily expand it's deposition and collection of additional minerals from whatever foodstuffs they are consuming, and increase the number of vitamins the mushrooms synthesize.

While there isn't anything that you couldn't insert genetically into a mushroom that would stop it from having these properties, it's hard to compete with a plant, which can input free energy (sunlight) into the manufacturing of all this stuff. In the case where you have high-calorie inputs (like, say wood pulp or recycled paper/plastics) there could be some fascinating applications - imagine this as a landfill digestor. Then focus on ONE aspect of your fungus idea, and make the mushroom lavish it's efforts on part of the food chain (like giving it genes to make balanced proteins).

I would likely focus on the fungus as a liberator of carbon and nutrients from otherwise hard to digest materials, and funnel those nutrients to plants and algae that have been engineered to do all those things. After all, why reinvent the apple, when your fungus can make the fertilizer?

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    $\begingroup$ You might want a fungi-plant hybrid, which might resemble something more like a carnivorous plant that does its feeding through the roots. So it can grow faster than it otherwise would. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Apr 9 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ Well, some (many!) fungi can reign surpreme because they produce toxicants that very seriously dissuade competition. Beer, wine, cider are all useful to humans (and have all sorts of tastes) because the alcohol keeps pests and bacteria at bay, while the fungi is tolerant of it. $\endgroup$ – Stian Yttervik Apr 9 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ @StianYttervik Interesting. So Yeast produces alcohol as a strategy for survival? $\endgroup$ – whamsicore Apr 11 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen How would a plant/fungi hybrid work? Is there anything in nature that is similar? $\endgroup$ – whamsicore Apr 11 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ @whamsicore Yes. It is a strategy many microbes use to survive. Lactic acid is produced by many bacteria to establish a pH where other microbes die. Botulism is a specific choice of toxin that is horribly toxic to humans, even. It doesn't take many micrograms to kill off a bus load of people. Effective. $\endgroup$ – Stian Yttervik Apr 11 at 11:00
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Marmite

... is a prototype of a fungi-based diet. It is a concentrated yeast product, and apparently is still useful for making moonshine. (If only under unusual circumstances - Australia's ongoing experiment in Prohibition also led to the invention of non-intoxicating gasoline, and they are not done yet!) I see 39 g protein and 29 g carbohydrate per 100 g, which is respectable.

Lipids are not in evidence there, and are short in button mushrooms, but, fungi certainly make lipids (they have cell membranes like any other cell), and there is work being done on harvesting large quantities. There is no reason why fungi can't be used as good sources of saturated or unsaturated fats. According to that paper, fat concentration can be manipulated substantially simply with culture conditions.

Bottom line: fungi have a limited variety of fruits because they didn't evolve under the same conditions as angiosperms. There is no reason why they can't provide the three major classes of nutrients in any ratio desired, plus a wide range of vitamins and minerals. A fungus designed to extract energy from compost to put it into edible fruit should be something new under the sun. Your genetic engineers will have a glorious time exercising their imaginations.

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If you want to learn a bunch of amazing information of the lives of fungi and the diversity of things they are good at doing check out the book Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake.

With what you are asking of fungi it sounds like it might need to be a plant-fungi symbiotic organism to extract nutrients from waste matter but also energy-dense chemicals like sugars and fats from photosynthesis. So maybe some kind of super lichen?

Lichens have also shown a great degree of ability in breaking down challenging and unpleasant chemicals like crude oil and radioactive waste.

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