Scientists Discover Fungi That Can Digest Three Different Types of Plastic
Plastic waste is a major global problem, with at least trillions of pieces of plastic in the ocean and a staggering 14 million tons added every year.
While governments and scientists are working on solutions, recent research has turned to microbes as a potential remedy. Bacteria like Rhodococcus ruber have been found to digest plastic, but the process is often costly and non-carbon neutral.
That’s why new findings in the Arctic and Alps are so exciting.
The researchers identified two fungal species (in the genera Neodevriesia and Lachnellula) that can break down three different types of plastic. This discovery could be a game-changer in reducing plastic waste worldwide.
The team examined 34 microbes (19 strains of bacteria and 15 fungi) found in Svalbard, Greenland, and Switzerland. These microbes were found growing on free-lying plastic litter and plastic that had been intentionally buried in the ground for at least a year, as well as in the soil itself. Sampling 26 strains from the Alps and eight from the Arctic, the scientists isolated the microbes and grew single-strain cultures in the lab at 15°C under the conditions of darkness.
These organisms could help to reduce the costs and environmental burden of an enzymatic recycling process for plastic.Joel Rüthi, Microbiologist
“It was very surprising to us that we found that a large fraction of the tested strains was able to degrade at least one of the tested plastics,” said Rüthi.
While the results are promising, there’s still more research and future testing to be done. For one, the research team only tested the microbes at 15 degrees Celsius, but the microbes can grow in temperatures between 4 and 20°C. Future testing could reveal what the best temperature may be.
The next big challenge will be to identify the plastic-degrading enzymes produced by the microbial strains and to optimize the process to obtain large amounts of proteins,” said study co-author Beat Frey. “In addition, further modification of the enzymes might be needed to optimize properties such as protein stability.
This discovery offers hope for a cleaner, greener future.