One of the biggest problems facing the earth today, plastic pollution, could soon meet its match if students at Yale University are able to breed a recently discovered plastic-eating fungus on a large scale.
The group of students, part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador. The mission was to allow “students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way.” The group searched for plants, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue. As it turns out, they brought back a fungus new to science with a voracious appetite for a global waste problem: polyurethane.
The common plastic is used for everything from garden hoses to shoes and truck seats. Once it gets into the trash stream, it persists for generations. Anyone alive today is assured that their old garden hoses and other polyurethane trash will still be here to greet his or her great, great grandchildren. Unless something eats it.
Plastic pollution, exemplified by the giant floating patch of trash of immense size in the Pacific ocean, is highly detrimental to the world’s ecosystem because it breaks down extremely slow. In fact, plastic doesn’t actually biodegrade, what they do is they photodegrade–under the influence of solar UV radiations, plastics break down into ever smaller particles called microplastics:
This presents humans with a challenge that must soon be met, considering much of our plastic trash ends up in the ocean where it breaks down into toxic microplastics, winding up in sea life. Not only is this dangerous to the sea life, but it’s also dangerous to people because we end up consuming these very fish which we are poisoning with our trash.
Many groups and organizations have been formed to clean up plastic that ends up washing ashore on our beaches, but the vast majority of plastic pollution ends up in the ocean. This is why Oceanus is focusing on Oceanic cleanup, not beach cleanup. The planet has a growing addiction to cheap and industrious plastic, increasing in use exponentially every year with no end in sight. Something must be done–this is why the discovery of plastic-eating fungus is so exciting.
On an expedition to the rainforest of Ecuador, students from Yale’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry discovered a previously unknown fungus that has a healthy appetite for polyurethane. This fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first one that is known to survive on polyurethane alone, and it can do so in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, which suggests that it could be used at the bottom of landfills.
The discovery was published in the scientific journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Researchers were also able to isolate the enzyme responsible for decomposing the plastic.
It isn’t exactly clear how this fungus will be implemented in bioremediation, but one can almost picture condensed floating plastic areas out at sea covered in mushrooms which will eat the plastic trash then sink into the ocean.
It’s also important to wean ourselves away from petroleum based plastics because they require many many resources just to manufacture, and pollution doesn’t start or end with the trash in the gutter. Many other sustainable options are available which could used instead, like hemp based or other plant based biodegradable plastics. Plastic awareness and restaint is also important, but cleanup is imperative.
With the advancements we are making in science and technology, there is no excuse not to act, no excuse not to heal our oceans, no excuse to promote the death sentence of humanity via lack of action.
We at Oceanus are currently looking into not only natural compositions that have the possibilities to break down plastic, but also nanotechnology, as well as plasma gasification (turning plastic into fuel)–not to mention our prime objective: recycling these marine plastics to form floating platforms outside of government control in which to foster life and freedom.
Original article by Nick Bernabe