Even though green is in and reducing waste is all the rage today, humans still consume great amounts of plastic every day. Much of these plastics end up in dumpsters and our oceans. And since plastic does not break down the same way and as fast as organic materials do, it can stay in our environment for hundreds of years. It can clog drainage systems, endanger animals, and release harmful chemicals.
In addition to environmental cleanups, eco-friendly lifestyles, and worldwide green campaigns, there might be a new way to deal with the world’s plastic waste problem. Scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the Kunming Institute of Botany in China have recently discovered a fungus that uses enzymes to rapidly break down plastic materials.
The soil fungus, Aspergillus tubingensis, was found in samples taken from a rubbish dump in Islamabad, Pakistan.
A new study titled “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Aspergillus tubingensis” details the scientists’ findings. Dr Sehroon Khan of the World Agroforestry Centre/Kunming Institute of Biology, and lead author of the study, said in a statement:
“We wanted to identify solutions which already existed in nature, but finding microorganisms which can do the job isn’t easy. We decided to take samples from a rubbish dump in Islamabad, Pakistan, to see if anything was feeding on the plastic in the same way that other organisms feed on dead plant or animal matter.”
Laboratory trials showed that the fungus, aside from growing on soil, can also grow on the surface of plastics.
Piece of plastic showing holes eaten by black fungal growth.
The fungus then secretes enzymes onto the surface of the plastic, and the enzymes break the chemical bonds between the plastic molecules or polymers. Further tests showed that the fungus can break down the polymers, too, meaning plastics which would otherwise remain in the environment for years can be broken apart by the fungus in just a matter of weeks.
The fungus’ performance is affected by environmental factors such as pH levels, temperature, and the type of culture medium used.
Electron microscope photograph of plastic, showing cracks caused by fungal growth.
The researchers believe identifying the best factors for the fungus to achieve optimum performance could pave the way for large-scale waste treatment projects.
This could be the solution to our waste problem that threatens the environment.
The discovery of the A. tubingensis joins the growing field of mycoremediation, which explores the use of fungi in removing or degrading waste products including plastic, oil, and heavy metals. Mycologists believe that only a small proportion of all fungi species that can break down waste products have been identified.
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