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A group of Yale students on a school trip in the Amazon recently discovered a species of fungus that gets its sustenance from plastic in airless landfills, the NZ Herald reported.
The students, taking part in Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory, went with professor Scott Strobel of the molecular biochemistry lab into Ecuador’s wilderness. The goal of the mission was to enable “students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way.”
Plastic waste, a substance notoriously well known for its ability to more than likely last indefinitely, poses a huge threat to the environment. While landfills offer a good way to dispose of the waste in the short term, its long-term effects are strongly felt by Mother Nature.
Countless animals each year, especially marine life such as turtles, which commonly mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, perish as a result of the waste. The problem of plastic waste has escalated so quickly and extremely that there is a giant vortex of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is estimated to be roughly twice the size of Hawaii.
Samples of the fungi, named Pestoltiopsis microspora, were brought back from the trip by the group and could offer a solution to the plastic waste problem plaguing the environment today.
The fungi breaks down and digests polyurethane, a common plastic present in many various products, such as shoes, garden hoses, car seats, and other non-degenerating products. Interestingly, polyurethane by itself is enough to sustain the fungi, as it can exist and actually thrive in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, which perfectly fits the conditions found in the bottom of a landfill.
Students recorded the amazing behavior of the microbe and were able to isolate the enzymes that allow the organism to turn plastic into a source of nourishment. The findings were published this past year in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology with the conclusion that the peculiar microbe is “a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for biomediation.”
The Amazon holds more species of flora and fauna within its borders than virtually anywhere else on the planet. The discovery raises the possibility of other unknown organisms existing there that may also perform similarly amazing feats and help better the environment.
While it is unclear if the microbe will be able to help break down plastic in the ocean, the find raises the hopeful idea that a plastic-free environment will one day be possible.