Monday, February 6, 2012

Jungle fungus eats plastic, beats cancer

Pestalotiopsis microspora by Yale University
Rady Ananda
Activist Post

Researchers have found the first endophytic fungus that eats plastic, and can use it as its sole food source even in an oxygen-free environment. [1]

Pestalotiopsis microspora presents a massive bioremediation opportunity for landfills, where buried and surface plastics can be degraded naturally.

More likely, though, the enzyme responsible for degrading polyurethane (PUR) will be tweaked, patented and commercialized.  There will be no mad escape into urban centers where the mold will eat all our plastics, like medical scientist Kit Pedler envisioned in his sci-fi classic, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters.

One hopes, anyway.

Dubbed the “the E. coli of temperate and tropical rainforest systems,” P. microspora is ubiquitous in rainforests around the world, signifying its substantial role in forest ecosystem health. [2]

It also produces taxol, a chemical used to treat breast and ovarian cancers, though the Himalayan yew is more commercially profitable for extracting it.

The PUR-degrading enzyme “is extracellular, secreted and diffusible,” said the Yale University researchers who made the discovery.  The jungle fungus spits out an enzyme that diffuses to “a significant distance” from its body, expanding the potential range of cleanup.


Though touted in the media as a mushroom, P. microspora is actually a mold belonging to the Ascomycota phylum.  Mushrooms belong to Basidiomycota.  As an endophyte, it lives symbiotically within plants, whereas mushrooms tend to be ectophytes that live on plants.

Traveling to Ecuador’s rainforest as part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course taught by molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, several students collected woody plants of various families in the Yasuni National Forest in 2008. [3]

The winning fungal isolates came from the guava tree (Psidium guajava) and the custard apple tree (Annona muricata), though several different fungal species from a variety of trees demonstrated the ability to efficiently degrade polyurethane.

“Two Pestalotiopsis microspora isolates were uniquely able to grow on PUR as the sole carbon source under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions,” the study reports, noting that not all the P. microspora isolates shared this ability, likely due to genetic variability within the species.

Professor Strobel’s father, Gary, has been a bioprospector for over 30 years, licensing “more than 20 specimens to the likes of Eli Lilly, Chevron, and Dow Chemical,” reports Forbes. [4]

It was his discovery in 1993 of P. microspora’s ability to synthesize taxol.  Four years later, he discovered a fungus that emits antibiotic gases.  He licensed Muscodor albus “to Agraquest of Davis, Calif., which is turning it into an organic soil fumigant, and to other firms for treating waste in portable toilets.”

Credited with first introducing polyurethanes, I.G. Farben, (now Bayer [5]), is also notorious for its Zyklon B used in Nazi gas chambers, and for its medical experiments on Nazi prisoners. [5]  It began synthesizing PURs in 1937 and commercialized them in the 1940s. [6]

Since then, plastic pollution has circumnavigated the globe, collecting in ocean gyres [7], contributing to finite landfills, and poisoning the biosphere.  Nearly 300 million tons of plastic were produced in 2010, and the amount produced this century already exceeds the total amount produced in the 20th century. [8]

PUR is also a significant component of nanotechnology, allowing the development of nanowebs, nanotubes and other nanomaterials.  Medical uses of nano-PURs include artificial implants like cardiac valves and regenerative membranes for neurons, bones and other tissues.

“This ability to tailor surface chemistry, create nanoscale architectures and potentially match the mechanical properties of tissues makes nanocomposites particularly attractive for biomedical applications,” wrote researchers in 2010, “where they have been advocated as novel biomaterials and as scaffolds for tissue-engineering applications.” [6]

If the synthetic life forms found in Morgellons patients [9] are partially composed of polyurethane -- and it seems they likely are given its elasticity, strength and shape memory -- this fungus might break them down.  You’d have to worry about horizontal gene transfer, though.  It may be best to wait, along with landfills, for the synthetic version.

© Rady Ananda, 2012.

Notes:
[1] Russell, et al. “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi,” doi: 10.1128/​AEM.00521-11 Appl. Environ. Microbiol. September 2011 vol. 77 no. 17 6076-6084. Available at http://aem.asm.org/content/early/2011/07/15/AEM.00521-11.full.pdf
[2] Anneke M. Metz, et al.  “Induction of the sexual stage of Pestalotiopsis microspora, a taxol-producing fungus,” Microbiology, August 2000 vol. 146 no. 8 2079-2089. http://mic.sgmjournals.org/content/146/8/2079.full
[3] Bruce Fellman, “A Fungus That Eats Polyurethane,” Yale Alumni Mag., Nov./Dec. 2011. http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2011_11/findings_fungus.html
[4] Christopher Helman, “Driving on Mushroom Fumes,” 6 May 2009. http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/0525/036-biofuels-diesel-organic-driving-on-mushroom-fumes.html
[5] Bayer A.G., “Bayer Investor Relations: FAQs,” n.d. Accessed 5 Feb. 2012. http://www.investor.bayer.com/en/service/faqs/
[6] Dr Rath Foundation, “The History of the ‘Business with Disease’,” n.d. Accessed 5 Feb. 2012. http://www4.dr-rath-foundation.org/PHARMACEUTICAL_BUSINESS/history_of_the_pharmaceutical_industry.htm
[7] Tianxi Liu and Shuzhong Guo, Properties of Polyurethane/Carbon Nanotube Nanocomposites, in “Polymer Nanotube Nanocomposites: Synthesis, Properties, and Applications,” Vikas Mittal, ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2010. pp.141-176. Available at http://bit.ly/zukuco
[8] 5 Gyres Institute, “Global Research: Collecting data from the world’s oceans,” n.d. Accessed 5 Feb. 2012. http://5gyres.org/global_research
[9] Richard C. Thompson, et al. “Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends,” doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0053. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B 27 July 2009 vol. 364 no. 1526 2153-2166. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1526/2153.full
[10] Rady Ananda, “CDC calls Morgellons’ nanoworms a delusion, protects DARPA,” 30 Jan. 2012. http://www.activistpost.com/2012/01/cdc-calls-morgellons-nanoworms-delusion.html

Rady Ananda is an investigative reporter and researcher in the areas of health, environment, politics, and civil liberties.  Her two websites, Food Freedom and COTO Report are essential reading.

Read other reports by Rady Ananda here.

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2 comments:

Darcy Webb said...

This is a really cool thing. To think that people are using the rain forest for building new homes in Atlanta is lame. The possibilities with this new discovery are endless.

Michelle Legaspi said...

My thesis project is featured in this article! I'm a graduate student in the Strobel Lab at Yale University, and if you're interested in directly contributing to the Pestalotiopsis microspora research, we have just started a crowdfunding capaign on Microryza (where people can contribute to cool scientific projects). Check out our page here: https://www.microryza.com/projects/can-we-use-fungi-to-break-down-our-plastic-and-rubber-waste

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