New Plastic-Eating Fungus Provides Hope for the Future

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A new species of fungi discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon has shown the ability to degrade polyurethane plastics.

The species Pestalotiopsis microspora seems to enjoy eating plastic, and is even able to survive eating only polyurethane plastic.  The species is also able to degrade plastic in an anaerobic environment, which bodes well for implications of placing the fungus in airless landfills.

The fungus was discovered by a group of students and professors from Yale University.  They were part of the undergraduate Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory program, where students searched for plants to culture the micro-organisms within their tissues.

In the report of their findings, titled “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi,” the researchers observed that plastic degradation occurred beyond the size of the fungus, implying that the fungus secretes whatever chemical can biodegrade polyurethanes.  This led the researchers to isolate the enzyme, which upon purification was able to degrade plastic on its own.

Other enzymes that can degrade polyurethanes have been found before, mostly in soil bacteria, however, this new fungus is able to degrade polyurethane more robustly than any of it’s predecessors, and even in an airless environment.

Plastics are one of the few, if not only, compounds that previously mother nature could not break down.  Even under harsh conditions the time it would take for plastics to naturally break down is estimated to be about 50,000 years.  For a scary, yet factual-based book on how plastics are consuming our earth I suggest reading Alan Weisman’s, The World Without Us, a very intriguing thought-based book on how long it would take the earth to return to normal after the last human has gone.

While this is promising for a future of involving more bioremediation in waste management, it is not the ultimate solution.  Ultimately more tests need to be run and people need to remember that there are much more stubborn plastics bedsides polyurethane: plastics that will not be able to be biodegraded.  The discovery of this new fungus could prove to be a giant leap in the overwhelmingly one-sided battle against pollution, but it is not an end all answer.  Currently, plastics—polyurethane or not—have the upper hand in sheer quantity, and many may still be around for thousands of years to come.  Plastics may even have a good chance of outlasting the species that created them.  To think, 10,000 years from now the only lasting legacy of the human specie’s triumph could be a lone Styrofoam cup perpetually floating in the middle an ocean’s gyre.

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