A group of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have found out that a rather common soil fungus called Aspergillus tubingensis can be used to break down plastic polymers. They made this discovery by taking samples from a landfill site in Pakistan, hoping to find microorganisms that would be able to feed on the plastic there, instead of dead organic matter like most microorganisms feed on. This is not the first time researchers have tried this, but it’s the first time they’ve actually found an organism that seemed to be feeding on plastic.
Back at the university the research group managed to grow more of the fungus by feeding it plastic, and therefore strengthening the theory that it is able to break down and feed on the plastic polymers. These are actually incredibly difficult to break down, and I’ve actually written a post about why plastic won’t break down in nature previously, so check that out if you’re interested! What you need to know is that it's really difficult, and no organisms are really adapted to doing it (except for maybe this one).
A. tubingensis seems to be breaking down the plastic by secreting enzymes onto the surface of the plastic, and then break the chemical bonds between the molecules in the plastic. By doing this it can feed on the smaller molecules it has broken down. Surprisingly the researchers also think that it uses physical strength from the mycelium to tear the molecules apart, which is really interesting!
Maybe this landfill in Australia also has a plastic-eating fungus hiding somewhere? Image is Public Domain.
Can this solve our plastic problem?
We have creating so much plastic in the last decades, and we’ve certainly got a big problem with getting rid of it all, and this is why scientists are so interested in finding good solutions to getting rid of it. At this point we don’t really have many options that are better than burning it up, which releases toxic chemicals into the air. We can recycle a decent amount of all plastic, but it gets degraded after each time it gets recycled, so at one point we have to get rid of it.
We can only hope that these fungi helps the process of finding alternative sources to get rid of plastic. They might be used on large-scale at landfills and other areas with a lot of plastic, or the enzymes used might be extracted and recreated synthetically to order for us to break down plastic ourselves.
We cannot really tell how much of a difference this fungus will do yet, but news like these are really good news nonetheless.
Thanks for reading
Thanks for reading about the fungus that seems to be breaking down plastic! I hope you enjoyed the post. If you want to read more, check out this article at The Hindu, or just do a google search for “Aspergillus tubingensis”.
About the author
Hi, I’m @valth! I live in Norway with my wife, our baby, and our two dogs; one of which is seen wearing a bow tie in the profile picture!
I am very passionate about nature and biology, and have been studying ecology for a few years now. My passions are mostly within conservation biology, mycology (the studies of mushrooms), botany, animal behavior and general microbiology. I really enjoy both the theoretical aspect, as well as the more practical aspect of biology, and I spend about as much time in front of biology textbooks as I do spend on finding and identifying plant, mushroom and animal species in the forests.
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