Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Newly Discovered Fungus Decomposes Polyurethane Anaerobically

Will the fungus discovered in the Amazon by a Yale University research group, and brought back to the school’s labs, where it showed it could consume polyurethane material, eventually dissolve all the plastics products foolishly thrown into landfills?

It’s far too soon to know, but the high activity currently on the Internet, might suggest ‘eventually’ is a short period of time. Terry Peters, SPI’s Senior Director of Technical & Industry affairs, found an article about the fungus at, a website of Fast Company magazine, under this headline:

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“Fungi Discovered In The Amazon Will Eat Your Plastic”

Even though there are no exclamation points, maybe we should heed Peters’ advice: “Careful with those toys,” he says. Of course he’s joking, but let’s hope it isn’t repeated. We could have a panic, or if it’s true, no traffic on the Internet.

The eco-bloggers recently demonstrated how quickly they can spread the word, for better or worse. A Google search on February 8th for “Pestalotiopsis microspora plastic,” the name of the fungus, brought back 4830 results, many of them recent. Oops, the discovery was announced by Yale at the beginning of August, 2011.

A scientific paper “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi” that appeared in the September 2011 issue of Applied Environmental Microbiology says several dozen endophytic (lives inside a plant) fungi were screened for their ability to degrade PUR. A number of them could, but two of them could use PUR as their sole carbon source under aerobic and, uniquely, under anaerobic conditions.

The inside of a landfill is an anaerobic environment, which may have sparked the idea that the newly discovered fungus could break down polyurethane entombed under other garbage, and if it could do that, it might also extract the carbon from other plastics in the heap.

The recently discovered Amazonian fungus has no trouble consuming polyurethane, even without oxygen.

Jonathan Russell, the Yale student who first saw that the fungus had consumed the polyurethane, expressed caution. “I don’t want it to be broadcast as the cure-all to pollution,” he told CNN, “but it’s a modest step towards a very important goal.”

Ming Tien, a Penn State biochemist who had experimented with fungi for decomposition, concurred, saying, “The question of whether these microbes can be used in the future is an engineering challenge. It’s a big leap to go from the test tube to the field.”

Back at the Yale labs, the work continues. According to Yale biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, one student is trying to find an organism that will biodegrade expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) and others are interested in finding more solutions similar to the fungus that eats polyurethane.

Promising as this research is, recycling remains the optimum solution for used plastic products in the foreseeable future. Keeping them out of landfills — garbage dumps as they long were known — is the first step in making that happen.

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