Fungi May Rid the World of Plastic Waste
by Karyn Maier
A study published in PLOS ONE by a team of plant and molecular biologists from the University of Kelaniya and the University of Peradeniya, both in Sri Lanka, reports that certain species of fungi break down plastics as readily as they do dead hardwoods. Most notably, they are successful in breaking down the resin polyethylene, the most widely used plasticide in the world. This substance is found in many consumer products, from clear plastic food wrap to shampoo and laundry detergent bottles. Unfortunately, more than 90% of the plastics people commonly use every day cannot be recycled, and these items often find their way into the world's waterways and oceans where they release toxins and ensnare or suffocate marine life.
While this team focused on a group of 21 species of fungi, previous research has demonstrated that there are at least 430 species of fungi and bacteria capable of breaking down various types of plastic. This body of work also shows that hardwood isn't easy to break down because of the strong binding power of a polymer present in the wood called lignin. So, when one of the scientists on this team noticed that some species of fungi were able to break down dead hardwood while exploring a forest preserve, the research team collected 50 samples for testing. They found that in the absence of wood, the fungi broke down sheet plastic provided instead.
Fungi, as well as yeast and mushrooms, also produce enzymes that break down environmental pollutants and can be used to clean up chemical and oil spills. It is estimated that these fungi can be used to reduce the amount of plastics in the world's oceans by half. It is also estimated that if action isn't taken, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050.
Ocean Blue Project and retired NASA scientist Dr. Ken Cullings have been instrumental in this area of research and have now teamed up to further the work of ridding the planet of plastic waste. They are currently seeking donations in any amount -- from $1 and up -- for the purchase of a lab and field equipment. If you'd like to help their effort, please chip in here.
Prameesha Perera et al, Wood decay fungi show enhanced biodeterioration of low-density polyethylene in the absence of wood in culture media, PLOS ONE (2023). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0288133