From being utilized as construction material to biofuel, mushrooms hold incredible potential & could potentially help humanity in getting rid of a problem that is been brewing for quite a long time: Plastic.
Since the large-scale manufacturing of plastics started during the 1950s, people have made 9 billion tons of plastic and this creates a crisis that is difficult to handle since plastic requires over 400 years to degrade. Those used by humans of the ’60s still exist in some form, and with just 9% recycled, just 12% has been burned.
This has lead researchers to look for alternative techniques for plastic reduction, and one solution that could help humanity might be hidden in fungi. Researchers have found mushrooms that eat plastic over the years: Some mushroom species have the ability to consume polyurethane, which’s one of the main ingredients in plastic products.
In 2011, Yale students on a class research trip found an uncommon mushroom called –Pestalotiopsis microspora in the Amazon rainforest. The team of researchers stated that — this fungus not only can grow on polyurethane yet in addition use it as its one and only carbon source. The fact that it could digest & break down plastic even in anaerobic environments was exciting since it could be used at the bottom of landfills.
Further experiments on the speed of decomposition showed that — Pestalotiopsis microspora cleared plastic quicker than Aspergillus niger, which causes harmful black mold.
In another study in 2017, researchers found an alternate mushroom called — Aspergillus tubingensis that eats plastic in a waste disposal site in Pakistan. In 2 months, the fungus could colonize the plastic itself and secrete enzymes that break down polyester polyurethane into smaller pieces.
As part of a project, which was a collaboration between the microbiology faculty at Utrecht University and Katharina Unger of LIVIN Studio, an incubator prototype was made to grow edible fungi, Pleurotus ostreatus, also known as the — oyster mushroom, and Schizophyllum commune, aka the split gill mushroom, around plastic. As the fungi grow, they would break down & digest the material. This way, the team was able to turn plastic into an edible form that tasted “sweet with the smell of anise or licorice.”
There is also — “mycoremediation“, which is an experimental method that harnesses mushrooms’ natural ability to use enzymes to break down foreign substances. This effective, cheap, and environmentally sound technique has been used to decontaminate the environment by getting rid of some contaminants from damaged ecosystems.
One problem is speed. For instance, on the topic of toxic material removal, federal regulations require the removal of 100% of targeted contaminants pretty quickly. While scientists know that mushrooms can break down all kinds of substances in nature, it’s not yet known the speed of the breakdown, or how effective it is for that matter. This makes industrial scaling hard to achieve.
Additionally, since the researchers working on the issue aren’t really producing “products” that the masses sought after, the field does not attract much investment & funding can be difficult to find.
Still, the prospects are almost endless with fungi. From cleaning up oil spills to converting pesticides and herbicides to less harmless compounds, they have been used throughout the years. Should the field attracts more attention in the future and more studies are made, some environmental crises that await the world in the future could maybe be averted.