Jerico Espinas, Contributor
Landfills might be under some surprising new management in the near future due to a recent discovery of a plastic-eating microorganism by Yale researchers. During Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory in Ecuador, Scott Strobel and his team of students isolated microorganisms found in plant tissues. Of these samples, two Pestalotiopsis microspora isolates were found to degrade synthetic polymer polyester polyurethane (also known as PUR, a common plastic) in an anaerobic environment.
The practical application of the isolated fungi is obvious – landfills that are usually overburdened with slowly decomposing PUR found in most containers – and the infamous black garbage bag – are able to implement strands of this fungus to essentially ‘eat through’ their problem. In fact, the damp, dark, and air-free environment that is able to support most fungi, including this plastic-eating variant, is usually found in the bottom of landfill sites, where little or no oxygen is present. This discovery is incredibly important in the management of modern waste systems, since PUR can take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down naturally.
Of course, this solution is not perfect. It is likely that this fungus generates carbon dioxide as it ‘eats’ the plastic, since CO2 is a common byproduct of both aerobic and anaerobic respiration systems. So even if this solution could be implemented to get rid of plastic, we would potentially be increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It should also be noted that these fungi do not solve the problem of our dwindling oil supplies. PUR is traditionally made with petroleum or similar oil-based products in order to create its carbon bonds. Scientists are currently working on ways to reverse this process, thus making a landfill a potential oilfield with enough research. The fungi break down the carbon-based PUR in its entirety, thus preventing future generations from tapping into the potential oil resource.
As a whole, these faults are relatively small compared to the potential gain of solving part of our burgeoning landfill problem, especially in light of the 12 trillion tons of PUR produced annually. While far from being used commercially, Pestalotiopsis microspora is still an exciting new discovery that could revolutionize the way we think of garbage disposal.
Scott Strobel and his fellow researchers hope that their discovery will raise awareness of the many different endophyte species present in plant species. Endophytes are micro-organisms that help break down tough plant tissues after they die, though as the science community has recently seen, they can be used to break down far more complex materials. With due time and further research, it might be possible that entire landfill sites could be broken down, thanks to these miracle mushrooms.