A fungus that can “eat” plastic in weeks rather than years could help fight the growing plastic waste problem, according to a report by Kew Gardens.
It can take decades or sometimes hundreds of years for some plastics to properly degrade.
But a study on a waste site in Islamabad, Pakistan, isolated a fungus in the soil that quickly broke down chemical bonds.
It took just two months for the fungi – Aspergillus tubingensis – to biodegrade a type of plastic called polyester polyurethane (PU) into smaller pieces.
PU is used in products such as fridge insulation and synthetic leather.
The Pakistan study suggests fungi could be “developed into one of the tools desperately needed to address the growing environmental problem of plastic waste”, says the Kew report.
Fungi digests its food by secreting enzymes and absorbing the dissolved organic matter back into cells.
The first-ever State of the World’s Fungi report highlights the important role they can play in helping clean up the environment.
Fungi can also feed on pollutants such as oil spills, toxic chemicals like sarin nerve gas and TNT, and even radioactive waste.
Mushrooms are the most widely known fungi, but they can also be microscopic, single-celled yeasts that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Around 2,000 species are still being classified each year, say experts, and an estimated 93% of fungal species are still unknown to science.More than 100 scientists from more than 18 countries contributed to the report by Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens, which says “fungi rarely get the attention they deserve”.