Future of the Environment

Chinese scientists have found a fungus that could help save the planet - in a rubbish dump in Pakistan

Plastic bottles are sorted to be recycled at Cedar Environmental waste management company in Beit Mery, Lebanon August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir - RC1DF3599AF0

A fungus called Aspergillus tubingensis has been found to break down plastic in a matter of weeks. Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Brad Jones
Writer for Futurism, Futurism
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Future of the Environment

In brief

Researchers have identified a fungus that can break down plastics. The species could be a useful tool as we attempt to reduce the impact of waste material on the environment.

Fungi feast

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Kunming Institute of Botany have found a fungus that could potentially help us to address the problem of non-biodegradable plastics. The fungus is able to break down waste plastics in a matter of weeks that would otherwise persist in the environment for years.

Aspergillus tubingensis is typically found in soil, but the study found that it can also thrive on the surface of plastics. It secretes enzymes which break down the bonds between individual molecules and then use its mycelia to break them apart.

It’s thought that there are all types of fungi with useful properties that we don’t yet know about — but as deforestation and other human activity continue to destroy habitats, we might never gain access to such species. The researchers actually found Aspergillus tubingensis on a rubbish dump in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Plastic potential

The study observed that there are several factors that affect the fungus’ capacity to break down plastic. The temperature and pH balance of its surroundings, as well as the type of culture medium in place, had an impact on its performance.

The next step for these researchers is to figure out what conditions would be ideal to help facilitate a practical implementation.

The fungus could be used to help address the problem of plastic particles swimming around in our water supply by being put to work in a waste treatment plant, or in soil contaminated with the material. The benefits of mycoremediation — the practice of using fungi to degrade unwanted substances — are becoming more and more apparent as we find species that can degrade more varieties of material.

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