Researchers find organisms growing within fungi capable to degrade plastics
A group of Yale University undergraduates made an interesting discovery when they went on a field trip to Amazon Rainforest. They discovered organisms growing within fungi in the rainforest which are capable to degrade polyurethane – a finding that may lead to innovative ways used to reduce plastic waste in the growing landfills around the world.
“This shows amazing things can happen when you let undergraduates be creative”, said Kaury Kucera, postdoctoral researcher in the Yale University department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and co-instructor of the course.
Students taking the Yale’s Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course search for and collect organisms called endophytes found in rainforest plants and then take them back to New Haven to test them for biological activity. Students analyze the endophytes that show biological activity to see whether they might have other medical or other social uses.
On the 2008 trip to Equador, student Pria Anand, Class of 2010, decided to see if the endophytes she collected could be used in bioremediation. In a rudimentary test, Anand showed a chemical reaction did take place when an endophyte she found was introduced to plastic. A second undergraduate of the same class, Jeffrey Huang, analyzed endophytes collected by other students on the 2008 trip to find those that broke down chemical bonds most efficiently.
Jonathan R. Russell, Class of 2011 then discovered that one family of endophytes identified by Huang showed the most promise for bioremediation (use of microorganism metabolism to remove pollutants). Russell went on to identify the enzyme that most efficiently broke down polyurethane.
While other agents can degrade polyurethane, the enzyme identified by Yale students holds particular promise because it also degrades plastic in the absence of oxygen – a state which is a condition for bioremediation of buried trash.
In order to take this research a step further, a new group of undergraduates is analyzing newly discovered endophytes collected during recent rainforest trips to see if they can degrade tougher plastics such as polystyrene.
For more information, read the article published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology named: “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi“.