Stuff We Need: Plastic-eating Fungus

Just about a year ago, I blogged about an article that prompted me to reconsider my just-say-no-to-plastics mantra.

No, it didn’t convert me into a lobbyist for the plastics industry. Heck, I still believe that the absolute best thing would be for humans to end the production of plastics. Rather, I just haven’t ruled out the possibility that plastic could someday become a renewable resource. We’ve already made great strides in recycling (how cool is fleece made from recycled plastic bottles?!), and there are a number of different plant-derived plastics already on the market.

However, one problem that isn’t going away anytime soon, thanks to the fact that plastic takes forever to biodegrade, is waste: landfills overflowing with plastic, waterways polluted with it, animals dying from ingesting it, etc.

Well, thanks to a team of Yale University students with a passion for fungus, we have a good subject for a long-overdue Stuff We Need installment!

Via Fast Company:

[A] group of students, part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador. The mission was to allow “students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way.” The group searched for plants, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue. As it turns out, they brought back a fungus new to science with a voracious appetite for a global waste problem: polyurethane…

The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first anyone has found to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and–even more surprising–do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment that is close to the condition at the bottom of a landfill.

How frickin’ cool is that?!

Now, knowing how careless humans can be while tampering with the natural order, it’s not hard to imagine this going very, very badly.

Here’s the synopsis of a sci-fi/action/thriller movie that would almost certainly be made based on one possible outcome:

The Fungus Among Us
A global environmental crisis is mounting, stemming from humanity’s lust for plastic. Landfills are full, toxic chemicals are leaching and poisoning ground water, humans may have switched to electric cars, but oil is still fought over, as the plastics industry tries to keep up with worldwidee consumers’ insatiable demands for cheap, disposable products of all shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, in a small village in the Amazon, living amongst a tribe of indigenous people who have been spared contact with the outside world, a reclusive biologist (played by Brad Pitt) discovers a fungus that eats plastic. Despite his disdain for the developed world, knowing that even his oasis in the jungle will eventually be destroyed if the plastics problem isn’t addressed, the scientist reluctantly returns to the U.S., where his discovery is at first shunned by environmental bureaucrats. Turning to the private sector, a plastics manufacturer realizes they can insure their future billions in profit while earning billions more by selling the fungus that will clear up the landfills so that they can be filled again, over and over and over again. Only, after initial success, the fungus, which they genetically altered in order to boost its consumption rate and capacity, starts to reproduce at an alarming rate, it becomes airborne, and soon it starts consuming plastic everywhere it’s found. Personal property, modes of transportation, infrastructure everywhere starts crumbling apart, and it’s up to the reclusive biologist to find some way to kill the fungus. Will he succeed?

So, hopefully they can figure out how to use this fungus responsibly, perhaps by cultivating it in massive containers, into which they add the plastic waste, where it can be eaten in a controlled, sealed environment.

See, they just have to consult me!

5 thoughts on “Stuff We Need: Plastic-eating Fungus

    1. your talents are obviously wasted…

      Yeah, I keep waiting for someone with a big fat wallet to notice that and offer me a big fat payday.

      Now, Helen, you know the real reason why I write this blog. 😉

      It’s cheaper than buying lottery tickets!

  1. I totally can see a science fiction movie about the plastic eating fungus becoming uncontainable and taking over the world…now would really be a bad thing? impatiently waiting for the next installment of your story 🙂

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