Archive for University of Yale
According to the ideas website psfk.com, students and professors from Yale University in the eastern US have discovered a type of fungi in the Amazon rainforest that can break down polyurethane (PUR), a common plastic used extensively in construction, transport, and furniture manufacture. The discovery was made as part of the university’s Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory Educational Program, which promotes discovery-based research among undergraduates. Surprisingly, the two types of Pestalotiopsis microspora fungi can survive on the polymer alone and in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.
Research into this kind of thing is not new. Mark Osborn, Professor of Microbial Ecology at the University of Hull, has been studying how micro-organisms adapt in natural and polluted environments. Featured in the BBC’s Costing the Earth, Prof. Osborn and a PhD student of his Jesse Harrison explained how they go to various beaches in the UK and bury plastic in the sand, recording over time the microbes that would attach themselves to it. They collected evidence that some of these micro-organisms actually degrade the plastic, or the chemicals associated with it such as PCBs, DDT, BPA, etc. However, due to the scale of the bacteria compared to the plastic waste, the length of time it would take for a piece of plastic to completely break down is not exactly fast.
Unsurprisingly, the plastics industry is not particularly happy with this line of research. Although the idea of growing plastic-eating bacteria or fungi in an anaerobic environment may sound like a controlled method of waste disposal, uncomfortable scenarios arise if these micro-organisms escape into the environment. Particularly if they have been genetically engineered so that they degrade plastic at a higher rate than they would naturally. For obvious reasons, plastic manufacturers have expressed concern about a super-bacteria that survives on a diet of plastic loose in the world.
And yet, with global annual plastic production hitting 260 million tonnes, the problem of our plastic waste is only going to get worse. Reducing, reusing, and recycling are all very well to cut back on any more plastics escaping to the environment but we do need to think about solutions that tackle those items already there. Could plastic-consuming bacteria and fungi be the answer?