Scientists and researchers have identified a soil fungus, which uses enzymes to rapidly break down plastic materials, an advance that could help deal with the waste problem that threatens our environment.
Aspergillus tubingensis, which was found in a rubbish dump in Islamabad, Pakistan, can break down plastics in a matter of weeks.
Humans are producing ever greater amounts of plastic—much of which ends up as garbage. Since plastic does not break down in the same way as other organic materials, it can persist in the environment for long periods of time.
The fungus could potentially help scientists in addressing the problem of non-biodegradable plastics and reduce the impact of the waste material on the environment.
According to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Kunming Institute of Botany, the fungus is typically found in soil and is armed with the ability to thrive on the surface of plastics.
It secretes enzymes which break down the bonds between individual molecules and then use its mycelia to break them apart.
Attempts to deal with plastic waste through burying, recycling, incineration or other methods are variously unsustainable, costly and can result in toxic by-products, which are hazardous to human health.
The study observed that there are several factors that affect the fungus’ capacity to break down plastic. The temperature and pH balance of its surroundings, as well as the type of culture medium in place, has an impact on its performance.
The benefits of mycoremediation—the practice of using fungi to degrade unwanted substances—are becoming more and more apparent as researchers continue to find species that can degrade more varieties of material.
The researchers took samples of soil and various pieces of rubbish in hopes of finding an organism that could feed on plastic waste in the same way that other fungi feed on dead plant or animal material.
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.