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Plastic-Eating Fungi Found In Rubbish Heap

A strain of fungi researchers found in a rubbish heap can break down plastic as it grows.

Asian Scientist Newsroom | April 5, 2017 | In the Lab

AsianScientist (Apr. 5, 2017) - Scientists from the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), Chinese Academy of Sciences
have recently identified a fungus which could help deal with the problem of plastic waste by using enzymes to rapidly
break down plastic materials. Their findings have been published in Environmental Pollution.

Plastic is used in the manufacture of an astonishing variety of materials: from the phone or computer on which youre
reading this article, to the car, bus or bike you use to get around, and even in many clothes. However, the tremendous
increase in the production and use of various manmade plastics has become a huge threat to the environment: plastic
waste can choke waterways and soils, release harmful chemicals, and even poses a threat to animals which can mistake
plastic debris for food.

Plastic polymers take many years to decompose, as they are not easily broken down by the bacteria, fungi and small
creatures that feed on other waste matter. Even when they do somewhat degrade, tiny particles of plastic may persist in
the environment, with unknown consequences for human and environmental health.

However, the KIB team believe they may have found an unexpected solution to our growing plastic problem in the form
of a humble soil fungus.
We knew that one way to do this would be to look to solutions which already existed in nature, but finding
microorganisms which can do the job isnt easy, the authors said.

In the end, the research team found their plastic-eating fungus living in an appropriate venuea rubbish tip in
Islamabad, Pakistan.

Aspergillus tubingensis is a fungus which ordinarily lives in the soil. In laboratory trials, the researchers found that it
also grows on the surface of plastics. It secretes enzymes onto the surface of the plastic, and these break the chemical
bonds between the plastic molecules, or polymers.

Using advanced microscopy and spectroscopy techniques, the team found that the fungus also uses the physical strength
of its myceliathe network of root-like filaments grown by fungito help break apart the polymers. Plastics which
persist in the environment for years can be broken down by A. tubingensis in a matter of weeks, the scientists say.

The fungus performance is affected by a number of environmental factors including pH, temperature and the type of
growth nutrients used.

This could pave the way for large-scale use of the fungus in waste treatment plants or soils already contaminated by
plastic waste. The discovery of A. tubingensis appetite for plastic joins the growing field of mycoremediation, which
investigates the use of fungi in removing or degrading waste products including plastic, oil and heavy metals.