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In 50 years the global production and consumption of plastics have continued to rise.
Today if you walk on a beach almost anywhere in the world you will find plastic waste; bottle tops, shoes, fishing nets (ghost nets), bags and bottles seem to be most prevalent in this neck of the woods. Tons of plastic debris which can vary in size from large containers to microscopic plastic pellets are discarded every year and everywhere polluting lands, rivers, coasts, beaches, and oceans.
On its own, plastics can take decades to decompose and is a potential health risk as it can carry carcinogens as well as other lethal pollutants as well as be detrimental to marine species by acting as floating death traps for turtles, dugongs, and sharks. New strategies have been developed and more research is in progress to reduce the impact of these plastic materials.
Plastic polymers take many years to decompose as they are not found anywhere else except a test tube, therefore are not easily broken down by your commonly found microbes (mycorrhizae or lactobacillus) that feed on your tradition waste sources such as kitchen scraps or compost. Even when the plastics are able to be partially degraded tiny particles may persist in the environment, with unknown consequences on human or environmental health.
Some species of fungi will produce enzymes that breakdown a variety of pollutants including heavy metals, petroleum fuels, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and herbicides. Here, nature is provided clues to reduce pollution particularly with non-degradable plastics.
The inquirer.net reports researchers have discovered a fungus which have been feeding on plastics in a rubbish dump in Islamabad. Their paper on can be found here “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Aspergillus tubingensis”.
The fungi can be used because of their willingness to feed on complex molecules and turn them into simple compounds, such as water and carbon dioxide. The researchers found that the fungus aspergillus tubingensis can break down non-biodegradable plastic in weeks by secreting enzymes which pull apart individual molecules. Dr. Sehroon Khan from the World Agroforestry Centre/Kunming Institute of Biology, said her team had been looking for ways to degrade waste plastic that “already existed in nature”.
The team decided to take samples from a rubbish dump in Islamabad, to see if anything was feeding on the plastic in the same way that other organisms feed on dead plant or animal matter. They discovered the fungus Aspergillus tubingensis and has shown positive results after two months in liquid medium. According to Dr. Khan, “our team’s next goal is to determine the ideal conditions for fungal growth and plastic degradation”. This could pave the way for the large scale use of the fungus in waste treatment plants, or for application in soils already contaminated by plastic waste. The discovery of A. tubingensis’ appetite for plastic joins the growing field of mycoremediation, which investigates the use of fungi in removing or degrading waste products including plastic, oil and heavy metals.
Mycologists estimate that only a small proportion of all fungi species have yet been described, meaning vast numbers of potentially useful species are still to be found.
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