A Fungus Discovered in the Ecuadorian Rainforest Can Eat Plastic Pollution

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It’s not news that plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental issues that we are facing in the modern world.

We’ve all read dozens upon dozens of articles about the giant floating island of trash the size of Texas floating around the Pacific Ocean, about the 5 gyres, about the 200+ species that are ingesting plastic on a daily basis.

Images of animals caught in plastics, of pollutant-stuffed birds and fish and of various environments destroyed by plastic-pollution aren’t new to us.

And it doesn’t seem to get any better.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, plastic isn’t even biodegradable:

Plastics do not biodegrade, although, under the influence of solar UV radiations, plastics do degrade and fragment into small particles, termed microplastics.

The problem is: It feels like we’re always promised the next big thing, the next product that will reduce our future consumption of plastic products.


Why is Plastic so Hard to get rid of?

plastic pollution
Photo via Jason Karn

Plastics are rarely seen as food for the environment, and microbes, which are usually so good at breaking down unwanted pollutants, avoid it: Making it practically immortal.

It can take thousands of years before plastic finally degrades.

And we’re piling more and more on the landfills at rates that far outnumber how fast the earth can get rid of it.

But that’s enough doom and gloom.

Things are finally starting to look up, and the answer to this troubling issue might be coming in the form of a fungus.


A Natural Solution to a Natural Problem: Plastic-Eating Fungus

fungus growing in forest
Photo via Jose Garcia

The fungus, named Pestalotiopsis microspore, was discovered in the rainforest of Ecuador by students from Yale’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry departments, and is said to be able to eat plastic on a large scale.

Yup, you read that correctly!

The fungus is said to have a healthy appetite for polyurethane. It actually feeds off polyurethane, a polymer that’s commonly found in anything from hard plastics to synthetic fibers.

According to Fast Company, the fungus is the first one that they have found that can survive on polyurethane alone. It’s also said to be able to eat away at polyurethane in an anaerobic environment (oxygen-free), which means that it can be placed at the bottom of landfills to accelerate (or, start) plastic’s decomposition.


Yale Students Might be Able to Breed it

What use is the fungus in the forest, you ask?

Well, accordingly to the group of students at Yale University, there is a high chance that they will be able to breed the fungus in laboratories and place them in highly plastic-polluted zones.


More Science

The researchers behind the discovery, which was published in the scientific journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, also stated that they were able to isolate the enzyme responsible for decomposing the plastic.

From the report:

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

While it isn’t completely clear how the fungus (or the enzyme) will be applied in bioremediation, it’s becoming more and more likely that the solution to some of our environmental issues might be right in front of our eyes: In the environment itself.

  • Sarah Burke

    Sarah is a graduate of the University of College Dublin. After receiving her MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, she taught High-school English and History for three years before moving to Vancouver to pursue a career in writing. In her spare time, Sarah likes to write poetry, go to music festivals and drink wine. Her favorite food is the burrito. She is an avid reader of fantasy novels, an active participant in feminist circles, and will always have an adventure planned in the foreseeable future. Interesting fact: Sarah is fluent in Irish (Gaeilge).

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