Plastic-eating fungus could help deal with landfill

A team from Yale University has discovered a fungus deep in the South American rainforest that can live entirely on plastic – offering hope for new methods of waste disposal.

Pestalotiopsis microspora, found in the jungles of Ecuador, can digest polyurethane – which often currently ends up in landfill and takes generations to decay.

Burning polyurethane  releases toxins as well as carbon dioxide; and, while it can be recycled, it frequently isn’t.

The fungus can live entirely on polyurethane. And, most intriguingly, the fungus can break down polyeurethane even without the presence of oxygen, meaning it could do its trick even at the bottom of a landfill site.

The fungus was discovered on the university’s annual Rainforest Expedition last year. It’s one of several that the team found could brak down polyeurethane, but was the only one to manage this without oxygen.

“The broad distribution of activity observed and the unprecedented case of anaerobic growth using PUR as the sole carbon source suggest that endophytes are a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation,” the authors write.

Jonathan Russell has isolated the enzyme that the fungus uses to degrade the polyeurethane, a serine hydrolase. He says it’s it’s possible that this molecule alone could be useful in getting rid of waste polyurethane.