The Mushroom That Ate the Blob
A particularly fascinating article was published In the July 15, 2011 issue of American Society for Microbiology. This article addresses an issue that has far-reaching implications for modern society.
First, a sidebar.
Fungi and bacteria are the mac-daddy decomposers of organic matter on earth. Without the decomposition of dead matter, we’d be covered in last year’s autumnal plumage, yard waste, and every other kind of waste imaginable. Fungi and bacteria transform all dead organic matter into nutrients to be used by living organisms for future growth. All those leaves from last year provide fertilizer for the trees to put on a show this fall.
The problem we face as an industrialized society is simple: we are burying ourselves in waste that cannot be broken down. I speak mainly of polyurethane. O, sure, it can be recycled and reformed into other shapes and for other uses, but this compound cannot be broken down and removed from the environment. Once created, it is immortal. Drive down any road in America and see what I mean. All those plastic water bottles that contained “natural” spring water are clogging waterways, roadsides, and landfills. Entire floating continents of plastic trash are floating in the world’s oceans, never to decay, providing an ever-present threat to wildlife. Styrofoam trays, packing peanuts, and coffee cups will be sitting there in a thousand years, providing future archaeologists a glimpse into our insanity.
Why does the article in ASM tickle me so? A group of scientists and students from Yale University and Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco in Peru have announced their findings in Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi. A particular fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, has the ability to consume polyurethane as its sole source of food. Yes, a fungus that eats the inedible. A fungus that destroys the indestructible. This one fungus has the ability to save us from ourselves. The abstract reads:
Bioremediation is an important approach to waste reduction that relies on biological processes to break down a variety of pollutants. This is made possible by the vast metabolic diversity of the microbial world. To explore this diversity for the breakdown of plastic, we screened several dozen endophytic fungi for their ability to degrade the synthetic polymer polyester polyurethane (PUR). Several organisms demonstrated the ability to efficiently degrade PUR in both solid and liquid suspensions. Particularly robust activity was observed among several isolates in the genus Pestalotiopsis, although it was not a universal feature of this genus. Two Pestalotiopsis microspora isolates were uniquely able to grow on PUR as the sole carbon source under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Molecular characterization of this activity suggests that a serine hydrolase is responsible for degradation of PUR. The broad distribution of activity observed and the unprecedented case of anaerobic growth using PUR as the sole carbon source suggest that endophytes are a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation.
This fungi can overcome the Blob. This insignificant organism, hiding in the Ecuadorian jungles, can kill the invading Martians we created in the first place. We can be saved from our Frankenstein’s Monster by a fungus.
Rather humbling, no? That we, the supposed highest form of life on this planet, must turn to a microscopic organism to solve our problems for us. And it turns out to be a rather simple and elegant solution. Inoculate plastics buried in landfills, and let the hungry fungi do the rest! Win-win.
It may take years for biologists and mycologists to figure out a way to bring this vision to life. I have hopes that finally, maybe, we humans will be able to craft a solution that doesn’t cause more damage than the original problem.
All with the help of a lowly fungus.