Helpful fungi

This really cheers me up!

The Amazon is home to more species than almost anywhere else on earth. One of them, carried home recently by a group from Yale University, appears to be quite happy eating plastic in airless landfills.

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.

The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first anyone has found to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and–even more surprising–do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment that is close to the condition at the bottom of a landfill.

Student Pria Anand recorded the microbe’s remarkable behavior and Jonathan Russell isolated the enzymes that allow the organism to degrade plastic as its food source. The Yale team published their findings in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology late last year concluding the microbe is “a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation.” In the future, our trash compactors may simply be giant fields of voracious fungi.

6 Responses to Helpful fungi

  1. dandy January 31, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Terrific news! Wonder if they’ll like Colista’s hair?

  2. Ron January 31, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    Stuff like this does hold great potential . . . now if the little critter shits non-carbon based fuel we’ll really have something.

    Unfortunately, I’m sure that there’s a cadre of god-botherers that will decry it as an abomination of god’s plan . . . funded, of course, by some corporation whose bottom line will be hurt.

  3. JJ January 31, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    I hope it doesn’t find something it likes better than plastic…

  4. phydeaux January 31, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    See Dandy’s reply above, JJ. When her hair has been consumed it might move onto Newt’s plastic personality.

  5. Izquierdo January 31, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    “Wonder if they’ll like Colista’s hair?”

    If it eats plastic, Willard better watch out as well.

    BTW, I’m surprised that Willard & Callista aren’t an item. That’s a much more plausible pairing than Leroy and Callista.
    And why doesn’t this program recognize “Callista”? Is it anti-Catholic, or just anti-plastic?

  6. Kurt February 1, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    I wish everyone in this country would go visit a major landfill at least once in their lives, so they could see how MUCH trash we generate and simply bury. If we were to implement really significant recycling and composting programs, as well as establishing new product design standards for recyclability and reuse, it would have a major effect on greenhouse gas production. (The biggest effect is actually “upstream” in the products’ lifecycles, at the point where resources are extracted and mobilized to manufacture things, but decomposition also produces a lot of greenhouse gas.)

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