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Plastic-Eating Fungus May Solve World's Waste Problems

Sep 08, 2014 10:23 AM EDT

An expedition to the Amazon by a group of Yale researchers has led to the discovery of a fungus that can break down plastic, possibly solving the world's rampant waste problem.

The fungus, pestalotiopsis microspora, can survive on a diet of only polyurethane, one of the most common, and pollutant, industrial plastics used by humans. What's even more amazing is that the plastic-eating fungus can feast on polyurethane in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment - the perfect match for chowing down on trash at the bottom of a landfill.

A group of Yale students made the breakthrough discovery in 2012, as part of the university's annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel. Venturing into the jungles of Ecuador, the mission was to allow "students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way," according to the course's website.

The group searched for plants within the Amazon, which is home to more species than almost anywhere else on Earth, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue.

What they ended up finding was pestalotiopsis, which can effectively degrade one of the most destructive synthetic substances for the planet.

Polyurethane, according to Co.Exist, is used for everything from garden hoses to shoes and truck seats. And once it becomes part of a heaping landfill, it stays there for generations.

The world's waste problem is not going to go away on its own, and manufacture and consumption of plastics over recent decades is only raising more concerns. About 32 million tons of plastic was thrown away in the United States in 2012 alone - only nine percent of it was recycled. The Yale team fears that this plastic problem poses a major threat to natural ecological systems.

The fungal findings were reported in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 2012, concluding the microbe is "a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation."

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