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.
“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…