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Fungal Violins, The Art Of Chemistry

by Craig Bettenhausen
October 3, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 40

Credit: Empa
Quality control: Researcher Iris Brémaud checks the growth of fungi on wood.
Credit: Empa
Quality control: Researcher Iris Brémaud checks the growth of fungi on wood.
Can you guess which of the recordings below, performed by violinist Mathew Trusler, features the mycowood violin? The other recording features a violin produced by the same instrument maker with untreated wood from the same tree. Listen to both clips and then click on the text of the one you think is the fungi-treated violin to see whether you’re correct.
Credit: Courtesy of Francis Schwarze
Credit: Courtesy of Francis Schwarze

The violins crafted by Antonio Stradivari are famous for their superior sound. Produced in Italy around the turn of the 18th century, a Stradivarius can fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction. Research under way at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science & Technology (Empa) could lead to affordable violins with a sound rivaling that of a Stradivarius—through the magic of fungi.

The tone of the famous instruments is thought to be partially due to a special stock of wood Stradivari used, which came from trees that grew in an unusually cold period from 1645 to 1715.

Replicating those climate conditions isn’t feasible, so Francis Schwarze is taking a different tack. The Empa scientist is using fungi to make “mycowood,” a material that has some of the same properties of Stradivari’s wood. Schwarze makes his mycowood by treating spruce and sycamore with the fungi Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes.

Credit: Empa
Mycowood: This fungally modified wood will be made into a world-class violin.
Credit: Empa
Mycowood: This fungally modified wood will be made into a world-class violin.

“The unique feature of these fungi is that they gradually degrade the cell walls” of the wood, Schwarze explained recently at a symposium at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, in Berlin. “But even in the late stages of the wood decomposition, a stiff scaffold structure remains via which sound waves can still travel directly.” In other words, P. vitreus and X. longipes may munch on the wood, but they leave behind its resonance and structural integrity.

In a famous 2009 experiment, a violin built with Schwarze’s mycowood was pitted against a genuine Stradivarius made in 1711 in a blind listening test. Not only did the expert judges prefer the sound of the mycoviolin over the Strad by a 2:1 margin, 63% of them also mistook Schwarze’s instrument for the 300-year-old masterwork.

Building on that success, the Empa team is now scaling up the fungal modification process and developing “standardized conditions to achieve reproducible results,” Schwarze says, with a goal of making 30 mycowood violins.

Kat Andonucci had not taken a single chemistry class when she was contacted by chemistry professor Andy Robak about a project he had in mind. But Andonucci, a visual and verbal arts major with a background in biology, turned out to be the perfect candidate to join Robak in exploring chemistry through photography.

Fluorescein: This UV-fluorescent compound is often used as an analytical tracer. Credit: Kat Andonucci
View Enlarged Image

The project, titled “The Art of Chemistry,” earned the junior at Keuka College, in New York, course credit in chemistry and the admiration of chemistry and art faculty alike. The complete series of pictures was on view at the college’s Lightner Gallery last month.

Robak and Andonucci prepared and photographed roughly 25 chemistry demonstrations over the course of the 2011–12 school year. “Often the reactions we tried did not work the first time,” an experience that many students don’t get until they try real research, Robak says. For example, Andonucci took nearly 1,000 shots of fluorescein mixing with aqueous solutions to find the lighting, apparatus, and technique needed to capture the beauty of the green swirls generated by the diffusion.

“One of the original goals of the course was to use some of the awesome visuals of chemistry to get nonscientists interested in chemistry,” Robak says. He and Andonucci already have had success on that score: Erik Holmes—Andonucci’s boyfriend, photography assistant, and frequent hand model—enrolled in the general chemistry class at Keuka this year.



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Donald Dwoske (October 3, 2012 11:17 AM)
I wish they had done a third recording under the same conditions using a Stradivari violin.
julian gleason (June 13, 2013 6:37 PM)
where can I buy physisporinus vitreus? I've looked everywhere.

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