On a routine trip to the Amazon last year to collect and analyze plant samples, a group of students from Yale University along with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel picked up an interesting organism: a new kind of fungus that likes to eat polyurethane.
Polyurethane is a synthetic polymer that is found in a number of consumer goods and manufacturing products including paints, furniture and vehicle parts. Although some materials made of polyurethane can be recycled into other parts, it eventually ends up in landfills where it remains indefinitely because it is not biodegradable.
The fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first known organism that can survive on a diet of polyurethane and can do so in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment such as those found in landfills. Researchers think the fungus could be the answer to the world's plastic problem.
"Polyurethane seemed like it couldn't interact with the earth's normal processes of breaking down and recycling material. That's just because it hadn't met the right mushroom yet."
The findings were published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. P. microspora was described as a "promising source biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation."
Photo: Flickr/The Field Museum Library