Students at Yale University discover a fungus that could help reduce plastic waste

Undergraduate students at Yale University in the US have discovered a fungus that can digest the common plastic, polyurethane.

The fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, was discovered in Ecuador’s Amazon region during the University’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course.

The findings, which could lead to innovative ways of reducing waste in the world’s landfills, were published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology in September 2011.

Student Jonathan Russell told Yale Alumni Magazine: “Many microbes can do cool tricks, like degrading pollutants.”

The plants were identified in the field by botanist Percy Núñez, a professor at the National University of San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru.

At Yale a previous graduate of the course, Pria Anand showed that the fungus could live and prosper on a diet of polyurethane alone, and it is believed to be able to function in the oxygen-free conditions that exist at the bottom of landfill sites.

Jonathan Russell has isolated an enzyme that the fungi use to break down the plastic and Yale believes that this molecule alone could be useful in eliminating waste polyurethane.

Photo title: Students from Yale University on a field trip in Ecuador, where a fungus that can degrade plastic was discovered

Photo credit: © Yale University