landfill on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan.image courtesy:Newsweek

Scientists have identified a novel 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.

The research team led by Xu Jianchu, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have found an unexpected solution to the growing plastic problem in the form of soil fungus Aspergillus tubingensis.

“Fungus biodegradation is an important way to treat pollution caused by synthetic plastics,” said Xu, adding that the efficiency of degradation was affected by various factors, including PH, temperature and the types of the medium used.

Plastic does not break down in the same way as other organic materials, it can persist in the environment over extremely long periods of time.

Great amounts of plastic are produced by humans, majority of them end up as garbage.

Attempts to deal with plastic waste through burying, recycling or incineration are variously unsustainable, costly and can result in toxic byproducts which are hazardous to human health.

The team found the plastic-eating fungus living in a rubbish tip in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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.

Using advanced microscopy and spectroscopy techniques, the team found that the fungus also uses the physical strength of its mycelia, the network of root-like filaments grown by fungi,to help break apart the polymers.

Plastics which persist in the environment for years can be broken down by A tubingensis in a matter of weeks.”Our teams next goal is to determine the ideal conditions for fungal growth and plastic degradation,” researchers said.

This could pave the way for large-scale use of the fungus in, for example, waste treatment plants, or for application in soils already contaminated by plastic waste, they said.


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