This might sound like an April 1 story, but no. It’s real!
A group of students from Yale University, part of the institution’s Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador with their molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel.
The group’s mission was to allow “students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way,” which is of course what all science teachers would love to be able to have their students do.
And They Discovered A Fungus That Can Break Down Plastic
The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first anyone has found to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and–even more surprising–do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment that is close to the condition at the bottom of a landfill.
Student Pria Anand recorded the microbe’s remarkable behavior and Jonathan Russell isolated the enzymes that allow the organism to degrade plastic as its food source. The Yale team published their findings in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology late last year concluding the microbe is “a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation.” In the future, our trash compactors may simply be giant fields of voracious fungi.
Since the general consensus about plastic products is that they take generations to decompose, if in fact that process ever happens, this is excellent news.
Polyurethane Extremely Common
Polyurethane is a very common plastic used for everything from garden hoses to shoes and truck seats. And it’s likely that all the garden hoses, shoes and truck seats that you’re using today will end up in a landfill, so wouldn’t it be great if this fungus could end up in the same landfill?
Is this the answer to our waste problems?
Photo Credit: Jeff/Godfrey