Fungi research lifts lid on shy organisms that break down plastic

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Could fungi help us deal with our plastic addiction? Scientists at London’s Kew Botanical Gardens think so. The first ever State of the World’s Fungi, produced by Kew Gardens and a team of around 100 scientists from 18 countries, reports that fungi successfully degrades polyurethane in a matter of weeks. 

The plastic-busting potential was discovered last year by a team of scientists from China and Pakistan, who sought to isolate the fungi that were degrading polyurethane at a waste disposal site in Islamabad. The fungi were identified as aspergillus tubingensis and the scientists observed how it broke down bonds between the different polymers in weeks, rather than the decades it can take plastic to naturally disintegrate. 

The breakthrough comes as people across the world question the throwaway consumerist culture that has swamped the world in a toxic tide of plastic that is killing marine life and polluting seas. Report authors argue that fungi deserve more specialist attention, saying further research into these oft-neglected organisms could provide answers to some of humanity’s greatest challenges. There may be as many as 3.8 million fungal species but only 144,000 of them have been named. 

“There is this hidden, mysterious kingdom that is underpinning the majority of life on earth,” says Dr. Ilia Leitch, senior scientist at Kew Gardens. “We just don’t know enough about them… There are fungi inside plant cells and they can influence how resilient a plant is to climate change. There are all these different links and impacts that we just take for granted but we ignore them at our peril,” she says. 

Leitch says other fungi and microorganisms are also being explored for their potential to break down other types of plastic. “By understanding how the fungi break down these bonds and what the optimal conditions are, you can then increase the speed at which they do it.” 



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