The rising role of mushroom chitin for sustainable production

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/TRAVELARIUM
Image: Getty/TRAVELARIUM

Related tags chitin chitosan biologicals

Thanks to its perceived sustainability advantages over animal-based chitin, there’s rising interest in the use of mushroom-derived chitin in agriculture, AgTechNavigator learns.

Chitin is, after cellulose, the second most abundant polysaccharide in nature and found primarily in the exoskeletons of insects, crustaceans and arachnids.

Due to its biodegradability, chitin (or its derivative chitosan) is used in various industrial applications such as surgical thread and as binders for dyes and glues. And thanks to its nutrient- and nitrogen-rich composition chitin is proving itself versatile and effective at enhancing soil health, promoting plant growth, and providing natural pest and disease resistance. A host of companies are therefore extracting chitin from shrimp cells​ or black soldier fly larvae​ for use as a bio-fertiliser and biopesticide.

Why chitin from mushrooms is an emerging field

But chitin is also found in the cell walls of fungi and the use of mushroom-derived chitin in food and agriculture is another emerging field.

Canadian start-up Chinova Bioworks, for example, makes a natural preservative from mushroom chitosan for use in the food and beverage industry.

Companies now producing biofertilisers and biocontrols from mushroom chitin include Belgian biotech KitoZyme, PrimexEhf in Iceland and China-based Chibio Biotech.

These innovators say they are tapping into the demand for non-animal derived chitin, which is considered more sustainable than chitin from crustaceans for several reasons.

Non-animal derived chitin, for example, brings less risk of allergenicity, and is more able to be produced locally from a greater diversity of sources. Mushroom cultivation, meanwhile, generates significant waste streams that can be used to produce chitosan and provide an additional income stream for mushroom growers.

Non-animal derived chitosan production may have lower environmental impacts, especially if the waste streams are locally sourced and processed sustainably.

The US company DPH Biologicals has also recently introduced a new crop protection seed treatment product – ChitoNox FC, a biocontrol for soil-borne diseases and nematodes developed from sustainably sourced chitosan from mushrooms instead of crustaceans. 

“It is produced in a green cycle, using waste from the food industry,” explains DPH’s chief technology officer Alex Cochran. “It is a rapidly renewable resource, thus minimising environmental impact. While research on mushroom-derived chitosan is still emerging, we are actively investing in and collaborating with academic and industry partners to expand the scientific understanding and validate the benefits of our products over the long term.

“Our ongoing field trials and studies are designed to provide robust data supporting the positioning of the product. The product will be commercially available for the 2025.”

The first chitosan from the Aspergillus niger fungus to be commercialised

This is the first chitosan from the Aspergillus niger fungus to be commercialised, he adds. It features a multi-action mechanism offering direct antimicrobial activity while activating the plants defenses and forming a protective film around the seeds and roots, making it an “exceptionally effective product”.

It delivers three modes of action against disease: an antimicrobial effect, directly attacking pathogens; stimulation of plants natural defense systems, enhancing their ability to resist disease and abiotic stress; and formation of a protective film around seeds and roots, acting as a barrier to infection.

The mechanism of action of chitosan derived from Aspergillus niger involves its ability to disrupt the cell walls of various pathogens, effectively inhibiting their growth and protecting crops, explained Cochran. “This specific type of chitosan, with a lower molecular weight and a specific configuration, has a unique molecular structure that enhances its antimicrobial and antifungal properties, making it more effective than traditional crustacean-produced chitosan.”

Additionally, it acts as an elicitor, stimulating the plant’s natural defense mechanisms and combining these actions for superior crop protection.

Set for rapid scale in the ag sector?

ChitoNox FC will cover a broad array of row crops for seed treatment use including corn, soybean and cotton. It provides protection against soil-borne and seedling diseases, notably Fusarium and Pythium, and is also being developed for protection against key nematode pests, including root knot and soybean cyst nematode.

The company has developed, along with academics and independent laboratories, advanced tools to discriminate the sources of chitosan to ensure a consistent customer experience with the product.

Working with our retail customers and growers, we are applying ChitoNox FC in a variety of ways to fit within existing practices. For instance, it can be used as a seed treatment in planter box applications, dry seed finishing, and slurry applications. This makes the application quite convenient for the grower with no additional steps needed post planting.

“The cost to produce mushroom-derived chitosan is competitive with other products in the segment,” Cochran added, “and the incremental performance advantage over crustacean chitosan will allow for rapid scale in the agricultural sector.”

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