These plastic-hungry fungi in China might just be the key to solving the world’s waste

Image: University of Chinese Academy of Sciences 1; TEXT 2
  • Dr. Peter Mortimer, a South African mycologist, has been studying fungi in China’s Yunnan province for nearly 12 years.
  • Last year, he and his team discovered four unrelated species of fungi that digest plastic and latex, a component of natural rubber.
  • Some 6,000 species have reportedly been discovered in Yunnan, but Mortimer believes there are so much more.
  • Mortimer says the newly -discovered species could be the key to solving the planet’s waste problem.
  • Throughout their research, Mortimer’s team has discovered and published at least 1,000 species of fungi.

Some species of fungi in southwest China’s Yunnan Province could help solve the world’s waste problem, according to a scientist who recently discovered them.

Those fungi, Dr. Peter Mortimer said, happen to be voracious eaters of plastic and rubber — materials that account for at least 44% of the world’s waste, as per World Bank data.

Mortimer, a South African mycologist, has been studying Yunnan’s fungi for nearly 12 years at the Kunming Institute of Botany. So far, some 6,000 species have been discovered in the province, but Mortimer believes there are so much more.

During a research trip last year, Mortimer, along with Samantha Karunarathna from Qujing Normal University, discovered four unrelated species that break down plastic. They were able to see the process at first sight.

“We were in rubber plantations in Xishuangbanna looking for fungi. There was an old discarded plastic bag in the bushes, and there were fungi growing on it and digesting it,” Mortimer told Sixth Tone.

After taking the new species to the laboratory, the scientists found out that they were also capable of digesting latex — the sticky, milky tree sap used in producing natural rubber. It can be used in lieu of synthetic rubber when manufacturing tires, which account for 28% of all microplastics in the world’s oceans, according to a 2017 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Mortimer and his team fed their fungi different plastics. They found polyurethane (PU) to be the most susceptible to biodegradation.

“I am excited — these four new species are aggressive in colonizing PU, showing a very high rate of degradation,” Mortimer told Sixth Tone. However, their digestion of latex needs further assessment.

“We are at very early stages. In the lab, these species of fungi gain nutrition from latex, but we have not tested the rates of mass loss and degradation of latex,” he added.

Mortimer’s team has discovered and published more than 1,000 new species of fungi, according to People’s Daily. Some of them even have “ultra-high economic value.”

Armed with data from his discoveries, Mortimer has devoted his time to artificially cultivating mushrooms with high economic value. He has also led at least four national natural science fund projects and continues to keep an eye on more collaborations.

“In the last five years, I’ve noticed a big increasing trend in the collaboration (and) in the types of funding projects available. So I’ve been able to apply for more international grants, joining collaboration (projects), such as (those between) China and Thailand and (those between) China and South Africa,” he told People’s Daily last October.

 

 

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