Now dubbed “plastic-eating” fungus, Aspergillus tubingensis was observed to have the ability to break down non-biodegradable plastic by secreting enzymes that are able to split individual molecules apart.
The physical strength of the fungus’ mycelia — the network of root-like filaments grown by fungi — helps break down the polymers, the scientists say. Plastics, which carry lethal pollutants and take decades to decompose, can be broken down by A. tubingensis in a matter of weeks.
World Agroforestry Centre/Kunming Institute of Biology Dr. Sehroon Khan, lead author of the study, said her team had been studying alternative means to degrade waste plastic that “already existed in nature”.
“We decided to take samples from a rubbish dump in Islamabad, Pakistan, to see if anything was feeding on the plastic in the same way that other organisms feed on dead plant or animal matter,” Khan was quoted by the World Agroforestry Centre as saying.
To determine which conditions it is most effective, researchers tested the fungus in liquid, soil and Sabouraud Dextrose Agar (SDA) plate, a selective medium used mainly to isolate dermatophytes, other fungi, and yeasts.
While the research team found that the fungus was able to decompose plastic in all three mediums, it was most effective when it was cultured on an SDA plate. Bio-degradation by the fungus in liquid comes second, and lastly via soil. The fungus, which naturally lives in the soil, can also survive on plastic surfaces, the scientists found.
Researchers believe A. tubingensis can finally be the answer to effectively treating plastic particles in waste treatment plants.
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