Friday, February 03, 2012

Students discover fungus that loves to eat plastic


Plastic is a wonderful thing. It encases our gadgets, helps keep our food fresh, holds our water, and carries our data, as well as having a multitude of other uses. But there is one major problem with it: plastic does not breakdown on a reasonable timescale. The chemical bonds are so strong it is very difficult for nature to degrade it. The end result is lots of waste plastic being buried or clogging up our oceans for the next several generations.

What we need is a way to quickly breakdown plastic waste, and the solution has appeared from an unlikely source.

Students from Yale discovered a new type of fungus, called Pestalotiopsis microspora, while on a Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory trip to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. While there, the students were tasked with collecting microorganism and plant cell samples, and the fungus became one such sample.

When the students returned, it was discovered this fungus loves eating plastic, more specifically polyurethane, which we use millions of tons of every year. Popular uses include foam for inside furniture, building insulation and flooring, as a sealant, varnish, or paint, for making surfboards and inflatable boats, and it even gets used to make watch straps and garden hoses.

This table gives you a good idea of how many different uses it has just in the U.S. (this data is taken from 2004, its use seems to increase by around 5% every year):

The fungus is able to grow on polyurethane in both oxygen-filled and oxygen-free environments. It then breaks the plastic down into liquid or solid forms. And because it doesn’t require oxygen to eat, it’s possible Pestalotiopsis microspora could work at biodegrading the plastic buried deep within our landfills around the world. It could also provide a new solution for dealing with plastic before it reaches the landfill.