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Fungus from the Amazon devours plastic

A landfill in Panama that was once mangroves. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
A landfill in Panama that was once mangroves. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Students from Yale University have made the amazing discovery of a species of fungus that devours one of the world’s most durable, and therefore environmentally troublesome, plastics: polyurethane, reports Fast Company’s Co-Exist. The new species of fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is even able to consume polyurethane in zero-oxygen (anaerobic) conditions, which would be important in eating plastics in the deep dark layers of landfills where little sunlight, water, or oxygen is found.

Polyurethane is used for a wide-variety of everyday products from bedding to foam construction, and surfboards to watch bands. The plastic can often be recycled, but landfills still retain huge amount it, which may persist for hundreds of years.

Pestalotiopsis microspora is an endophytic fungus, meaning it survives on host plants, but does not harm them. The paper suggests that endophytes “are a promising source of biodiversity” for bioremediation, i.e. employing natural processes to deal with pollution.

The discovery was made through Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course for undergraduates.

“Students will engage in full time research where they will culture endophytic microorganisms growing within the plant tissue,” the course description reads. “Organisms will be screened for the production of novel, biologically active natural products.”

In this case, the students hit a potential jackpot.

CITATION: Russell JR, Huang J, Anand P, Kucera K, Sandoval AG, Dantzler KW, Hickman D, Jee J, Kimovec FM, Koppstein D, Marks DH, Mittermiller PA, Núñez SJ, Santiago M, Townes MA, Vishnevetsky M, Williams NE, Vargas MP, Boulanger LA, Bascom-Slack C, Strobel SA. Biodegradation of polyester polyurethane by endophytic fungi. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. July 2011, doi: 10.1128/​AEM.00521-11.

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