The Amazon river basin is without a doubt the most biodiverse region on the planet. Researchers are continuing to discover new species every year. Recently, a group from Yale University discovered a fungus that appears to be quite content eating plastic in airless landfills, an environment too harsh for even the world’s most industrious bacteria.
The group of students who carried home the fungi were part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel. The group was working in the jungles of Ecuador to search for plants and culture the microorganisms within the plant tissue. One of these microorganism, a fungus previously unknown to science, could prove vital in the global fight against waste pollution due to its eager appetite for polyurethane, a widely used plastic product.
Polyurethane is a popular plastic due to its longevity and resistance to decomposition. Used in everything from garden hoses and Spandex to shoes and foam seating, polyurethane will persist in the environment for generations. While no one complains about how their garden hose can take a beating all summer without disintegrating, most polyurethane products will be discarded eventually. Once they enter the waste stream, they stay there indefinitely.
The newly discovered fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first known microorganisms to survive on a diet of polyurethane alone. And just as importantly, it is able to do so in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, similar to the rather extreme conditions inside of a landfill. Environmental engineers have long used veracious microorganisms to treat municipal waste-water, but this discover could mean a significant shift in the management of solid waste. I would not be upset if we stopped burning our trash or burying it, hoping that it will simply disappear. Landfills have always stuck me as a very stupid concept and a frustratingly low-tech solution for such an advanced country to endorse.