The Amazon is home to more species than almost anywhere else on earth. One of them, carried home recently by a group from Yale University, appears to be quite happy eating plastic in airless landfills.
The group of students, part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador. The mission was to allow "students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way." The group searched for plants, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue. As it turns out, they brought back a fungus new to science with a voracious appetite for a global waste problem: polyurethane.
Yale undergrads, including Jon Russell, Class of 2011, discovered organisms with Amazon Rainforest plants which can degrade plastics. The undergrads' discovery is featured in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
Organism within fungi in a rainforest plant shows evidence of bioactivity when exposed to polyurethane.
The plastic, which was in a milky-white liquid form before being introduced to the fungus, had vanished when she checked on the mixture in a Petri dish two weeks later.
Anand, 23, said it was an amazing feeling. And hiking through a rainforest didn’t hurt either.
“It was really exciting. You could see that these microbes were able to break down plastic,” Anand said. “The white substance turned clear. It seemed like a long shot, so it was exciting to see that it worked.”
The fungus isn’t the only one to degrade polyurethane, but it’s special because it can do so under anaerobic conditions, or without oxygen, said Yale biochemistry Professor Scott Strobel, who oversaw the project.
In the future, Strobel said he hopes to characterize the protein the fungus produces that is responsible for bioremediation.
In the meantime, students are looking into ways to degrade polystyrene.
“We are also developing approaches to identify organisms able to
degrade more complicated polymers. One of the students this year is
targeting polystyrene,” Strobel said. “Because of the nature of the
polymer, that is a much more difficult challenge than polyurethane.”