Amazon fungi found that eat polyurethane, even without oxygen

Feb 03, 2012 by Lin Edwards report

(PhysOrg.com) -- Until now polyurethane has been considered non-biodegradable, but a group of students from Yale University in the US has found fungi that will not only eat and digest it, they will do so even in the absence of oxygen.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Each year Yale University operates a Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course, which includes an expedition to a tropical jungle in the spring recess and summer research on samples collected. Last year the group cultured microorganisms found on plants they collected in the , one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth. Among the samples they discovered a fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, that will digest the , polyurethane.

Polyurethane is a developed in the 1940s, that is often used to replaces rubber, paint, wood, or metals. Polyurethane is found in a wide variety of modern appliances, furnishings, paints, vehicle parts, materials, glues, and shoes, among many other applications, and has the advantages of strength, durability and elasticity. Some of the polyurethane used can be recycled into other products, but it all ends as waste eventually. The is that once it enters the landfill it could remain there almost indefinitely because nothing we know is able to metabolize and digest it (in other words, it is not biodegradable), and the within it are so strong they do not degrade readily. Polyurethane can be burnt, but this releases harmful carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, along with other .

Last year's group, led by Professor Scott Strobel, a molecular biochemist, discovered P. microspora and found that it will not only eat polyurethane, but can survive on a diet consisting solely of polyurethane. Furthermore, it can survive in anaerobic environments, such as those existing in the oxygen-starved regions deep inside landfills.

The fungus was discovered in the jungles of Ecuador by Pria Anand, and another undergraduate student, Jonathan Russell, identified a serine hydrolase, the enzyme thought to enable the fungus to digest the polyurethane. Both students are studying in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale in Connecticut.

The newly-discovered fungus is an endophytic microorganism, which means it lives on or inside the tissues of host plants without causing them harm. Several other microorganisms were found that would degrade both solid and liquid polyurethane, but only P. microspora isolates could survive entirely on the plastic under aerobic and anaerobic conditions.

The paper describing the discovery was published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The authors suggest endophytic fungi such as P. microspora could be used to deal naturally with waste products such as —a process known as bioremediation.

Explore further: Genetic switch regulates a plant's internal clock based on temperature

More information: Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. September 2011 vol. 77 no. 17 6076-6084. doi:10.1128/​AEM.00521-11

ABSTRACT
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.

Related Stories

Trip to rainforest yields new way to degrade plastic

Aug 02, 2011

Organisms discovered by Yale undergraduates growing within fungi in the Amazon Rainforest can degrade polyurethane, a findings that may lead to innovative ways to reduce waste in the world's landfills.

Potentially toxic flame retardants detected in baby products

May 18, 2011

Scientists are reporting detection of potentially toxic flame retardants in car seats, bassinet mattresses, nursing pillows, high chairs, strollers, and other products that contain polyurethane foam and are designed for newborns, ...

Researchers build a tougher, lighter wind turbine blade

Aug 30, 2011

Efforts to build larger wind turbines able to capture more energy from the air are stymied by the weight of blades. A Case Western Reserve University researcher has built a prototype blade that is substantially lighter and ...

Recommended for you

Environmental pollutants make worms susceptible to cold

Sep 19, 2014

Some pollutants are more harmful in a cold climate than in a hot, because they affect the temperature sensitivity of certain organisms. Now researchers from Danish universities have demonstrated how this ...

User comments : 27

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

mrtea
5 / 5 (12) Feb 03, 2012
How many other amazing living things exist in the Amazon that will disappear before we can discover them?
antialias_physorg
3.6 / 5 (10) Feb 03, 2012
How many other amazing living things exist in the Amazon that will disappear before we can discover them?

Is this a trick question?
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (8) Feb 03, 2012
How many other amazing living things exist in the Amazon that will disappear before we can discover them?


Is this a trick question?

Point being: If they disappear BEFORE we discover them we OF COURSE will never know how many such things there are. How do you count somthing you know nothing of?
PJS
5 / 5 (8) Feb 03, 2012
im pretty sure that was a rhetorical question...
rawa1
2.5 / 5 (15) Feb 03, 2012
The free market economy cannot account into the value of natural resources, until they're not evaluated with money - just because it operates with current prices only. The protection of these resources therefore cannot remain in competence of free market economy. But when some government will attempt for it, the proponents of free market will begin to scream about socialism as a single man.
cyberCMDR
5 / 5 (7) Feb 03, 2012
Sounds good, but will all the plastics deployed for long term use (such as plastic pipes, etc.) also be on the menu for this fungus?
Jorsher
5 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2012
Wow. I'm impressed.

Save the Amazon!
MR166
2.2 / 5 (13) Feb 03, 2012
"The environmental problem is that once it enters the landfill it could remain there almost indefinitely because nothing we know is able to metabolize and digest it (in other words, it is not biodegradable), and the chemical bonds within it are so strong they do not degrade readily."

So what exactly is the problem with that? It does not produce any toxins that can leach into the environment so where exactly is the concern? The same could be said for rocks. There are too many real problems around to be worried about how to dispose of an inert substance.
bewertow
5 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2012
"The environmental problem is that once it enters the landfill it could remain there almost indefinitely because nothing we know is able to metabolize and digest it (in other words, it is not biodegradable), and the chemical bonds within it are so strong they do not degrade readily."

So what exactly is the problem with that? It does not produce any toxins that can leach into the environment so where exactly is the concern? The same could be said for rocks. There are too many real problems around to be worried about how to dispose of an inert substance.


Does that mean you would like to volunteer your community to be turned into a landfill? If it's no worse than a pile of rocks what's the big deal?
MR166
1.4 / 5 (9) Feb 03, 2012
So bewertow what does your town do with it's garbage, use an atomic disintegrator or shoot it into space?
indio007
1 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2012
They need to go have a look in western Mass. I saw insects feeding on styrofoam in a river.
bewertow
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2012
So bewertow what does your town do with it's garbage, use an atomic disintegrator or shoot it into space?


They use a landfill, obviously. The point of this article is reducing the waste that goes into landfills and never breaks down.
mrtea
5 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2012
There is an island of garbage in the Pacific that is (much) bigger than Texas. Imagine if this fungus could consume it as well.
Wolf358
3.3 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2012
Okay, this is a fungus, so i assume it spreads by spores. I really hope they're handling this like anthrax , because if it spread across the northern hemisphere, bye-bye technology based on polyurethane.
Seriously, this fungus should be handled like a bio-weapon.
MR166
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 04, 2012
Bewertow where I live they built some pretty nice recreation areas with ball fields and picnic grounds on top of old landfills. God knows garbage is better off dumped in a non-useful parcel of land than in the ocean. A properly designed landfill is not really harmful.
gwrede
4 / 5 (4) Feb 04, 2012
Of course landfills are inconvenient. Until they are filled up, people like Donald Trump can't "develop" them. But more important than avoiding landfills should be to recover 100% of what today is unnecessarily going to landfills.

We should find or develop fungi that recover everything between heavy metals to light plastics. Landfills as such are simply one of the things that change a landscape, but today we fill them with stuff that really ought to not be there.
MR166
1 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2012
qwrede I think that basic research is the only thing that will save us. And yes, cost effective recycling can only be a giant plus. But claiming that something is a problem because it is inert and does not biodegrade does not make any real sense. Of all the problems in the world I vote that we tackle that problem last. Quite frankly, we do not have the money to waste on this sort of non-problem. There are much greater problems that require our financial resources.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2012
Wolf358

You're absolutly right. Start bringing fast growing fungus that just starts eating everything from a place where the environment has adapted by being so prolific as to outpace northern ecologies to the extent that it could evolve into some sort of black fungus that takes over our closets and and our mops and brooms. Wait! Did I say black fungus?
baudrunner
1 / 5 (4) Feb 04, 2012
People ought to just stop travelling around for no good reason for a couple of decades so that we can reconnoiter our position in the global scheme of things. Travel is spreadng things like bedbugs and fungus. How near is styrofoam to the caulking in our bathrooms?
MNIce
3 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2012
I've invested some hard-earned money in polyurethane insulation - I do NOT want this fungus in my house!
Skyking211
1 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2012
Discovery is only the first step in a long process before utilization. Does anyone believe this will be deployed like the end product of the Manhattan Project. Not much thought to the long term implications of that, was there?

I would like to know if this can digest PVC or PET. I believe the methane extraction and water injection extraction pipes in landfills are PVC. Anyone know for sure?
JoBean
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 05, 2012
Wolf358,Skyking211

I am with ya'll. There have been so many things moved from one place to the other like ponds and river's that have no natural predator and it completely takes over. Besides, What would this fungus be used for? Transferring one useless material into another would be defeating the purpose. Does it break it down into nutrients, fertilizers? If so, growing crops with plastics?
Xharlie
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2012
Two points are conspicuously missing from this article: the by-products of decomposition of polyurethane by P. microspora and mention of future studies or projects investigating the use of P. microspora to decompose polyurethane in existing land-fill sites around the world.

jibbles
5 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2012
So what exactly is the problem with that? It does not produce any toxins that can leach into the environment so where exactly is the concern?


it's quite toxic when it burns. landfills burn.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2012
Another concern would be space. We're running out of space to put landfills in (note that polyurethane isn't the only substance that winds up in landfills. There a a host of other nasties in there, so you can't put them anywhere you like if you prefer your veggies and your groundwater to be safe)

If we can biodegrade the polyurethane that would lead to a greatly reduced volume of waste. And that would be a great thing ecologically and economically.
Stamunga1
not rated yet Feb 06, 2012
"The environmental problem is that once it enters the landfill it could remain there almost indefinitely because nothing we know is able to metabolize and digest it (in other words, it is not biodegradable), and the chemical bonds within it are so strong they do not degrade readily."

A quick google search ought to enlighten you as to how 'inert" plastic is. It is bioactive and it is not degrading on it's own. Breakthroughs like this one may be the saving grace of your single serving lifestyle.

So what exactly is the problem with that? It does not produce any toxins that can leach into the environment so where exactly is the concern? The same could be said for rocks. There are too many real problems around to be worried about how to dispose of an inert substance.

MR166
1 / 5 (2) Feb 07, 2012
The real toxic wastes in our land fills are the New York Times and the Washington Post. There is plenty of land available for landfills just let the free market and a few "reasonable guidelines" rule their development.