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Mushroom chemistry

Potential pigment patent readies Birch Boys to produce melanin from chaga fungi

Maya Duncan-White holds a bowl of chaga fungi next to vials of melanin extracted from chaga. (Provided photo — Garrett Kopp)

TUPPER LAKE — Two Clarkson graduates living in Tupper Lake have applied for a patent on their method of extracting melanin from fungi. They are looking to become wholesale providers of the pigment, which is finding increased use in biotechnology.

Garrett Kopp owns Birch Boys, a chaga tea business on Park Street, and has worked with the birch-borne chaga mushroom for years now. Maya Duncan-White, Birch Boys’ lead chemist, is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and will be traveling back home next week.

The two ended high school early, skipping their senior years to attend an early entrance program at Clarkson in Potsdam, where they met at freshman orientation.

Now they have developed a method of drawing out the melanin that gives Kopp’s treasured chaga fungi its black exterior, and they are looking to sell it to university researchers studying the pigment.

This vial holds melanin extracted from chaga fungi. (Provided photo — Garrett Kopp)

Mycology and melanin

Kopp said that after trying to teach himself a crash course on chemistry, he quickly learned he couldn’t do it himself.

“I reached out to the smartest people I know,” Kopp said.

Duncan-White was one of those people, and was also a chemist out of a job due to the coronavirus pandemic, so she said she was glad to find a project in her field to work on.

Garrett Kopp, the young Tupper Laker behind the Birch Boys chaga tea company, holds a large 10-year-old lump of the unusual mushroom in his drying room where chaga is dehydrated before being ground into a powder. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

She spent a few months working remotely in Pennsylvania, reading any research she could find on melanin and fungi. Both are new fields of research, she said.

“We are like babies in our understanding of the biochemistry of mushrooms,” Kopp said.

“Mycology really is in its infancy right now,” Duncan-White said.

She also said extracting melanin from mushrooms has not been attempted widely before. Currently, melanin used in research is either synthesized in labs, which she said is “subject to post-synthetic transformations that can cause degradation of the product,” or is harvested from cuttlefish or squid. Melanin is what gives squid ink its blackness. Kopp said there are large ethical concerns about cuttlefish melanin since the most efficient methods of harvesting involve breeding and killing the animals, which he said he has a problem with.

Kopp said he only knows of three companies that sell melanin, and all three are large pharmaceutical companies that use these methods.

The two said they hope to provide researchers with a cheaper, plentiful and pure form of melanin that is harvested ethically and sustainably.

Patent and process

Duncan-White and Kopp are now waiting on approval of their patent, which bears both their names, but they may have to wait up to a year for results. They are confident it will be approved, though, calling their application “strong.”

Access to university laboratories was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, so they built their own lab space in the basement of Kopp’s Tupper Lake shop.

The multi-step extraction process involves grinding the mushroom into particles — the smaller they are, the more is yielded — and then boiling it in a solution. Melanin dissolves into the solution and is then filtered out and turned from a liquid back into a solid powder.

Kopp said sustainability is a big concern for him, so he believes it is important to patent their process so the fungi are not over-harvested. He also said research will need to be done to find if there are differences between fungal and cuttlefish melanin.

Kopp said melanin is also found in tinder conk and meshima fungi, which have less demand than chaga mushrooms but a lower yield, too.

Duncan-White said chaga is around 25% melanin by weight, while the other two are 10 to 15%.

“Chaga is the breadwinner,” she said.

“Chaga is king,” Kopp said, referencing the fungi’s unofficial title as “the king of mushrooms.”

What is melanin used for?

The full extent of melanin’s scientific applications is still being found out by the experts, Duncan-White and Kopp said, but there are several emerging fields the pigment is being used in.

The fledgling field of nanotechnology has recently begun studying using melanin to coat bodily implants, making them easier to be accepted by the body.

“Using melanin as a coating over implants kind of hides it, so that the body won’t reject that technology,” Duncan-White said.

“It can conduct electricity, and since it is something that exists naturally in all forms of life, your body may not reject it,” Kopp said.

Researchers in 2019 found a process to make melanin more conductive of electricity. Scientific articles and researchers have suggested it could be used for implanted mechanical or electronic devices and “edible batteries.”

Melanin is the primary ingredient of edible batteries, acting as the electrodes of an electronic device that could be used to trigger chemical releases in certain parts of the body or diagnose ailments.

However, Duncan-White said this has yet to be studied in human bodies. Much of this is hypothetical, but she said universities around the world are studying melanin’s use, and Kopp said they could be using melanin extracted from Adirondack mushrooms to conduct that research.

Duncan-White also said melanin is being considered as a way to filter heavy metals from contaminated water. She said melanin chelates iron, aluminum, calcium and other metals, drawing them out from the water.

This would not be efficient to filter municipal water but could be used by industrial, pharmaceutical industries who need ultra-pure water.

Melanin protects human skin from ultraviolet light by absorbing the radiation. Kopp said this means the pigment could be used in sunscreens to act as a layer of protection against the sun.

Seeking buyers

Kopp said since he is self-employed, he has the freedom to decide whom he will sell melanin to, and he said he wants to choose ethical and productive companies and industries.

He said he wants the melanin they sell to be involved in medical biotechnology.

“I would much rather supply melanin that can be used in the development of a mechanical kidney as opposed to melanin used in microchips that allow us to unlock an electronic device,” he wrote in a text message.

“I think that there are limits to technology and how far we should go,” he said.

He and Duncan-White said though they are fascinated by the pigment they have been working with, they are not considering researching it themselves in Kopp’s basement lab. They said they will leave that up to other experts.

Melanin sells for between $400 and $500 a gram.

Kopp said he currently has a couple of grams on hand but has the capability of producing much more.

Duncan-White also said she feels the word melanin is “politically charged when it shouldn’t be.”

“I think it’s an example of how everyone is actually connected — not only everyone, but all forms of life on a certain level have melanin,” Kopp said.

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