Plastic-eating fungus found in dumpsite

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A fungus that can break down plastic waste in a matter of weeks has been discovered by Chinese and Pakistani scientists in a dumpsite in Pakistan, providing a potential natural solution for the world’s growing amount of plastic trash.

The research team from the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), Chinese Academy of Sciences has been investigating solutions to the problem of plastic waste, which ordinarily takes many years to decompose. Plastic polymers are xenobiotic, meaning that they have no non-synthetic characteristics that would aid their decomposition by bacteria, fungi, or small creatures that feed on other waste matter. Even when they do degrade, the researchers explained, plastic particles may remain in the environment, posing possible risks to human and environmental health.

“We knew that one way to do this would be to look to solutions which already existed in nature, but finding microorganisms which can do the job isn’t easy,” the researchers wrote in their research paper, which was published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Acting on a tip from researchers in Pakistan that a fungus capable of breaking down plastic might exist, the KIB team joined with Afsar Khan, an assistant professor at the COMSATS Institute of Information Technology in Pakistan, and discovered a plastic-consuming form of Aspergillus tubingensis, a fungus that ordinarily lives in the soil, in a dumpsite on the outskirts of the city of Islamabad.

In laboratory trials, the researchers found that the fungus also grows on the surface of plastics, and breaks the chemical bonds between plastic molecules with enzymes it secretes, as well as physically breaking apart the plastic with root-like filaments called mycelia.

Plastics that persist in the environment for years can be broken down by A. tubingensis in a matter of weeks, the research team reported, although factors such as temperature and pH affect its performance.

“Our team’s next goal is to determine the ideal conditions for fungal growth and plastic degradation,” Khan explained in a statement.

The researchers said their discovery could lead to large-scale use of the fungus in waste treatment plants or soils already contaminated by plastic waste.

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