The problem with plastics needs no introduction. We have been producing colossal amounts of them in infinite forms for over a century now. The problem is, we have no way of disposing them without environmental harm. Some types of plastics take a 1000 years to decompose and thus we have created a problem which will ripple over the next 20 generations at the least. Of-late, there have been efforts towards the of reduction in the use of plastics which is awesome but is no solution to the already existing heaps and mountains forming across our fragile, vulnerable planet.
Globally, plastic production has reached close to 400 million metric tons and it is estimated that by 2050 this number is set to reach 1,100 million metric tons! Approximately 36 per cent of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers, approximately 85 per cent of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste.
About 8 per cent of all plastics produced globally is in the form of Polyurethane (25 million metric tons produced in 2022).
Surprisingly though, in 2011, a group of students Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry discovered a fungus that can digest polyurethane in the Amazonian rain forest. Their annual research trip to Ecuador led them to discover two distinct Pestalotiopsis microspora strains that could survive by only eating plastic! To make things even better, it can do so in oxygen-free (anaerobic) conditions making it potentially capable of colonizing the bottom of landfills (where there is little or no oxygen).
More recently, Katharina Unger (founder of LIVIN farms) in collaboration with Utrecht University created a prototype incubator to grow fungi using plastic. They claim that the mushrooms that grow (by degrading and digesting plastic) in the incubator are edible! The device is called Fungi Mutarium. It grows the mycelium in specially designed Agar (seaweed based gelatin substitute) substrates which acts as a nutrient base for the fungi.
The prototype was tested with two fungi named Schizophyllum Commune and Pleurotus Ostreatus (commonly known as Oyster Mushroom). The edible fungal mass is introduced in the substrate of Agar mixed with starch and sugar which is filled with plastic. Result - Edible mushrooms grow by digesting the plastic.
A new study found a total of 184 fungal and 55 bacterial strains capable of breaking down polycaprolactone (PCL) - a biodegradable polyester commonly used in the production of various polyurethanes. Read more about it here.
All this goes to prove that in the war against pollution and climate change, Fungi will be a worthy asset and bioremediation will be a key technique.