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Could this Plastic-Eating Mushroom Change Everything?

Pestalotiopsis microspora
Source: Pixabay

Over the last decade, plastic production has become a severe problem in the United States. Despite strides being made to use more reusable bags and plastic straws, the nation’s plastic production has been increasing since the 1950s, and has experienced an exponential increase since the 1990s.  

And while people are doing what they can to be environmentally conscious, it can’t outweigh 90.5 percent of plastic that has never been recycled, leaving approximately 79 percent of plastic waste to accumulate in landfills and oceans

While initiatives like the Plastic Disclosure Project are trying to address the problem on a global level, there is something growing that might be the answer to all of this waste: mushrooms.

Pestalotiopsis microspora, an endophytic fungus, was discovered in Ecuador  by Yale students in 2011. The students collected samples of various fungi, including others in the Yasuni National Forest in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. Pestalotiopsis microspora was one of the five organisms that were selected for further screening, with another organism being a different strain of the mushroom. The students’ objective of their research was to determine which fungi would be able “to degrade the synthetic polymer polyester polyurethane,” otherwise known as PUR.  

Surprisingly, there had been no previous reports of the Pestalotiopsis genus having ”biodegradation activity.”  However, it turned out that four of the six most active organisms belonged to the Pestalotiopsis genus. Based on the findings of the students, they concluded that the Pestalotiopsis microspora strains were able to break down plastic at consistent levels, whether it was grown under aerobic or anaerobic conditions. The students ultimately concluded that these strains of fungi could reinstill biodiversity in our ecosystem.

While this strain gives us hope for a solution, how can one little mushroom possibly break down the remaining 90.5 percent of plastic? Sure, we could plant mushrooms in landfills, but what about the other places where plastic ends up? 

A study done by “a scientific working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS)” concluded that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in our ocean. 

 It’s even estimated that by 2025, the annual input is estimated to be about twice greater, or 20 times the 8 million metric tons estimate! 

Picture all of this trash scattered along the coastlines of our oceans: is this a safe environment for the organisms in our oceans?

When we look at the numbers, the answer is clear: fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 14,000 tons of plastic per year, 60 percent of all seabirds have eaten plastic, and half of sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic.” 

These are just three animals of the 267 species being affected by plastic pollution, More than 700 species are at risk of becoming extinct.

With numbers as large as this, is it possible that this plastic-eating mushroom could be the catalyst in the bioremediation of our ecosystems?  No one can tell for sure. But, what’s certain is that if we start taking recycling more seriously, and start viewing plastic pollution as a pressing epidemic, we could give our ecosystems, and all the organisms in them, a fighting chance.

By: Erin Shuster

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