Pestalotiopsis microspora is a species of endophytic fungus capable of breaking down and digesting polyurethane. Originally identified in fallen foliage of common ivy (Hederae helicis) in Buenos Aires, it also causes leaf spot in Hidcote (Hypericum patulum) shrubs in Japan.
Its polyurethane degradation activity was discovered in the Yasuni National Forest within the Ecuadorian Amazonian rainforest by a group of student researchers led by molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel as part of Yale's annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory. It's the first fungus species to be able to survive exclusively on polyurethane and, more importantly, able to do so in anaerobic conditions. This makes the fungus a potential candidate for bioremediation projects involving large quantities of plastic.
David Schwartzman (professor emeritus of biology at Howard University) says the Yale results are the promising first steps of a much longer scientific examination. “This research is of value, but we should be quite cautious about the application,” he says. “I would be very leery of releasing some organism into [a new] environment. That’s fraught with a lot of potential dangers.”
Schwartzman cites the plastic trash and microplastic particles clogging the oceans. “I’m just imagining a scenario where we say, ‘Let’s get rid of the marine plastics by spraying these fungi’ [into the ocean]. To me, that’s not a viable solution.” He offers an alternate plan: “Collecting the debris and then applying bioremediation to break them down would seem to be a valuable approach.”
Beyond that are potential horror-movie implications within the microbe’s structure, says Joel Cohen (head of the Laboratory of Populations at Columbia University and Rockefeller University). He points to one of the fungus’s properties, as outlined in the Yale paper: its potential ability to adopt other species’ genes and infect other species with its own genes. As the Yale study notes briefly, “Pestalotiopsis microspora...have a propensity for horizontal gene transfer.”
Cohen cites the Uruguayan-bred virus myxomatosis, which was introduced to Australia in the 1950s in an attempt to curb the enormous rabbit population and quickly went wild across the continent. “What is the possibility of horizontal gene transfer for the gene that produces this digesting chemical to be transferred to other organisms that weren’t intended to have that gene?” asks Cohen. “Is there a risk that the process of degradation could spread out of control?” In other words, the trash-eating enzyme could possibly mutate with other organisms in the landfill and start breaking down materials besides polyurethane—great for horror-movie writers, less so for people living nearby.
The Yale students posited that they might be able to breed the fungus in laboratory settings and test them on plastic-heavy zones, though they have not shared further information on that yet. (They did not theorize on transportation or containment strategies, which would be key.) They also urged future scholars to pick up their research, writing, “The relative ease with which organisms can be isolated and screened makes this a highly accessible and environmentally relevant project for engaging undergraduate students in scientific research.”
- Jonathan R. Russell, Jeffrey Huang, Pria Anand, Kaury Kucera, Amanda G. Sandoval, Kathleen W. Dantzler, DaShawn Hickman, Justin Jee, Farrah M. Kimovec, David Koppstein, Daniel H. Marks, Paul A. Mittermiller, Salvador Joel Núñez, Marina Santiago, Maria A. Townes, Michael Vishnevetsky, Neely E. Williams, Mario Percy Núñez Vargas, Lori-Ann Boulanger, Carol Bascom-Slack, and Scott A. Strobel (15 July 2011). "Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi". Applied and Environmental Microbiology (Washington, DC: American Society for Microbiology) 77 (17): 6076–6084. doi:10.1128/AEM.00521-11. ISSN 1098-5336. PMC 3165411. PMID 21764951. Retrieved 1 February 2012.
- Saccardo, Pier Andrea. Sylloge fungorum omnium hucusque cognitorum (in Latin) 3. p. 789. OL 7025165M.
- Zhang, M.; Wu, H.Y.; Tsukiboshi, T.; Okabe, I. (August 2010). "First Report of Pestalotiopsis microspora Causing Leaf Spot of Hidcote (Hypericum patulum) in Japan". Plant Disease 94 (8): 1064. doi:10.1094/PDIS-94-8-1064B.
- Anderson, Stacey. "The Plastic-Eating Fungi That Could Solve Our Garbage Problem". Newsweek. Retrieved 26 October 2015.
- (Pestalotiopsis microspora) at Wikimedia Commons
- (Pestalotiopsis microspora) at Wikispecies
- (Pestalotiopsis microspora) at Encyclopedia of Life
- (Pestalotiopsis microspora) at BioLib
- (Pestalotiopsis microspora) at Global Biodiversity Information Facility
- (Pestalotiopsis microspora) at Animal Diversity Web
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