Yale Students Discover Rare Plastic-Eating Fungus in the Ecuadorian Rainforest

by , 03/26/12
filed under: News, Recycling / Compost

plastic, recycled plastic, recycling, landfill, waste plastic, recyclable plastic, recycling

Plastics represent one of the biggest waste problems in the world because they take a really, really long time to break down. But a recent discovery by a group of Yale students could help speed the process. On an expedition to the rainforest of Ecuador, students from Yale’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry discovered a previously unknown fungus that has a healthy appetite for polyurethane. According to Fast Company, the fungus is the first one that is known to survive on polyurethane alone, and it can do so in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, which suggests that it could be used at the bottom of landfills.

petri dish, science, biology, micribiology, fungi, fungus, science lab

“Many microbes can do cool tricks, like degrading pollutants,” Jonathan Russell told the Yale alumni magazine. Polyurethane is a polymer that’s used in everything from hard plastics to synthetic fibers. A big part of the reason that plastics like polyurethane are so immortal is that microorganisms don’t typically recognize it as food, and it can take centuries for the environment to break man-made polymers to microscopic granules. The discovery of the fungus Pestalotiopsis microspora could change all of that.

The Yale students isolated the enzyme that enables the fungus to break down plastic and observed its potential. “The broad distribution of activity observed and the unprecedented case of anaerobic growth using [polyester polyurethane] as the sole carbon source suggest that endophytes are a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation,” they wrote in a report published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Reducing human consumption of plastic should obviously be the first step towards limiting the amount of man-made plastic in the environment, but if Ecuadorian fungi are willing to help the cause, all the better. Now if only we could send some of the fungus out to the Pacific Gyre

Via Digital Journal

Photos by Flickr users siftnz and gavin rice

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7 Comments

  1. Brent Irvine March 16, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    If we introduce this outside of its environment willy nilly, I could easily imagine a doomsday scenario where all of the plastic that\\\’s in use in our world begind to rot. If you look around you and see all the plastic that will cease to work properly – realize there is no activity and no facet of our world that would be immune.

    From our food network breaking down due to failing packaging, to hospitals losing their blood supplies, and being unable to transport anything due to fialing seals. To airtplanes falling out of the sky. To the cell network breaking down (both the base stations and cellphones are largely plastic.

    If this was a GMO, there would be a lot of scrutiny and control — this really is no different as it won\\\’t be in it\\\’s native environment. Let\\\’s be VERY CAREFUL as there is a lot at stake.

  2. Dr Migdad Al Rawi January 16, 2015 at 7:46 am

    As long Almaecilia Mushroom be able to sort the enzymes during growth, those enzymes are the same ones will degradable polyethylene

  3. SophiaCase October 6, 2014 at 8:32 am

    This is the website that leads directly to the publication – I just emailed the author whose details are on the page asking for them to consider public funding to get the project under way. Please do the same and together we can make this a reality!
    Sophia

    http://aem.asm.org/content/77/17/6076

  4. James Gross Jr October 5, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Evolution at its best.

  5. William Xie October 5, 2014 at 11:05 am

    This is so cool! But I must also ask, how would it effect the ecosystem if it is left uncheck? Would poison the ecosystem? Or would it just live life eating plastic?

  6. gbbrewer September 11, 2014 at 11:01 am

    glad to find this website!

  7. puppiesrock June 5, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    thanks i needed this 4 a project

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