While extracting samples from a Pakistani landfill site outside of Islamabad, researchers discovered a soil fungus that feeds on plastic.
It is no surprise that landfills around the world contain tons upon tons of plastic. When combined with the oceans’ contents, the number reaches into the billions of tons — and humans continue to produce plastic in factories daily, despite efforts at recycling and creating reusable substances.
For this reason, the human race has introduced what is called the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch caused by ample changes to the planet, warranting the classification from the former Holocene. The sheer number of plastics produced, as well as the abundance of concrete structures around the world, carbon pumped into the atmosphere with regularity and phosphorous and nitrogen permeating the Earth’s soil represent this new change — though they are also a large part of its cause, as scientists believe.
But back to landfills: one remarkable, but not wholly unexpected, effect of the Anthropocene is a species of fungus called Aspergillus tubingensis, which degrades plastic by feeding on it. In lab experiments, Aspergillus tubingensis mycelia, or the branched, tubular filaments of the fungus, seize the polyester polyurethane plastic, engendering a breakdown and scarring of the plastic’s surface. These results were published in Environmental Pollution, volume 225 in June 2017.
Organisms have fed on plastic waste in prior instances, so this particular finding in the Pakistani landfill site is not the first.
Plastic-degrading bacteria uncovered both most recently and in the past accompany another, larger discovery from earlier this year: the wax worm, which can naturally deteriorate plastic because of its similarity to beeswax, the worm’s typical and natural food source.
These findings, and the increased speed with which they are happening raise an unusual question: how can we potentially harness these organisms and this worm to combat the massive and regular plastic waste creation? As humanity has never experienced such an opportunity regarding plastic degradation, environmental and biology researchers do not currently have answers.
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