We’re filling up the world with plastic, and the material takes up to a millennium to break down in landfills. A group of scientists sought a solution to our plastic problem in nature – and they actually found one: a plastic-devouring soil fungus.
Our current solutions for dealing with plastic aren’t working well. Not all of the material is recycled, and it’s polluting landfills and oceans. Sehroon Khan of the World Agroforestry Center said in a statement, “We wanted to identify solutions with already existed in nature, but finding microorganisms which can do the job isn’t easy.”
Khan, lead author on a study published this year in Environmental Pollution, said they took samples from a dump in Islamabad, Pakistan “to see if anything was feeding on the plastic in the same way that other organisms feed on dead plant or animal matter.”
Turns out, there was such an organism: the fungus Aspergillus tubingensis. Laboratory trials revealed the fungus can grow on the surface of plastic, where it secretes enzymes that break chemical bonds between polymers. The researchers even found A. tubingensis utilizes the strength of its mycelia to help break plastic apart. And the fungus does the job rapidly: the scientists said in weeks A. tubingensis can break down plastics that would otherwise linger in an environment for years.
Factors like temperature and pH level may impact how well the fungus can degrade plastic, but the researchers say if we could pin down optimal conditions, perhaps we could deploy the fungus in waste treatment plants, for example. Khan said his team plans to determine those factors as their next goal.
Khan is also affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Science, and eight other researchers from institutions in China and Pakistan contributed to the study.