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Fungus that eats plastic may help clean environment

Scientists have identified a soil fungus, which uses enzymes to rapidly break down plastic materials, an advance that could help deal with waste problem that threatens our environment.

Humans are producing ever greater amounts of plastic — much of which ends up as garbage. Since plastic does not break down in the same way as other organic materials, it can persist in the environment over long periods of time.

Now, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have found an unexpected solution to the growing plastic problem in the form of a soil fungus.

Attempts to deal with plastic waste through burying, recycling, incineration or other methods are variously unsustainable, costly and can result in toxic by-products, which are hazardous to human health.

Researchers argue that we urgently need to find new, safer and more effective ways to degrade waste plastics. The team found the plastic-eating fungus living in a rubbish tip in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Physical strength used

The researchers took samples of soil and various pieces of rubbish in hopes of finding an organism that could feed on plastic waste in the same way that other fungi feed on dead plant or animal material.

Aspergillus tubingensis is a fungus, which ordinarily lives in the soil. In laboratory trials, the researchers found that it also grows on the surface of plastics.

It secretes enzymes onto the surface of the plastic, and these break the chemical bonds between the plastic molecules, or polymers.

Using advanced microscopy and spectroscopy techniques, the team found that the fungus also uses the physical strength of its mycelia — the network of root—like filaments grown by fungi — to help break apart the polymers.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 7:22:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/fungus-that-eats-plastic-may-help-clean-environment/article17763461.ece

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