It may not sound like a meal plan to aspire towards, but Yale University students made a fascinating discovery in 2012: a rare species of mushroom that can survive purely by feeding on plastic. The extraordinary mushroom that grows in the Amazon rainforest, “Pestalotiopsis microspora,” can feed on polyurethane (the main ingredient in plastic production), transforming the man-made ingredient into organic matter. The university’s research quickly gained traction, and some hugely impactful findings have been shared.
Pestalotiopsis microspora can live without oxygen, which brought scientists to a very interesting conclusion: these mushrooms have the potential to be propagated at the bottom of landfill sites.
The detritus that has amassed from decades upon decades of wasteful plastic usage presents a phenomenal undertaking, but scientists maintain that Pestalotiopsis microspora may, at the very least, change public perception of plastics in a helpful and progressive way, perhaps starting at the level of local community.
If plastic-eating mushroom species were propagated at community composting centers, residents would have the opportunity to come face to face with nature’s very own plastic assailant. But beyond small-scale composting, we know that there’s a literal trash heap twice the size of Texas currently floating in the Pacific Ocean. Laurent Lebreton of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation emphasized a sense of urgency to USA Today: “Unless we begin to remove it,” he said, “some would say it may remain there forever.”
So what would happen if we employed Pestalotiopsis microspora on this gargantuan scale? Would the hungry mushrooms rise to the challenge of consuming the world’s landfills, and what would we do with the mushrooms after they’d feasted to bursting?
Mother Nature has the answer, and it’s a tasty one: some plastic-eating mushrooms can be eaten by humans.
Katharina Unger of Utrecht University devised an amazing demonstrative model, or “Fungi Mutarium,” a climate-controlled, dome-shaped environment in which agar cups were filled with plastic waste and oyster mushroom spores. Over the course of a month, the mushrooms’ roots consumed and transformed the plastic waste into edible material, without accumulating toxins. The “final product” could even be eaten whole, Unger revealed, tasting “sweet with the smell of anise or licorice.”
Whether or not all plastic-consuming fungi are edible for humans remains to be seen. Research continues.
But scientists are eager to extrapolate further, and who can blame them when the next target objective is solving world hunger? An estimated 100 million people worldwide go without food every single day, so a nutritious food source that feeds on non-renewable waste material has the potential to solve one of the world’s most devastating problems.
Kew Gardens in London played host to the State of the World’s Fungi event in 2018 and identified yet another interesting use for the plastic-vanquishing mushroom species. After the fungi convert polyurethane into organic matter, preliminary research suggests that the fungi can be used to make “mushroom bricks,” a sturdy and sustainable building material.
It seems the sky’s the limit for this plastic-munching, potentially world-hunger-assuaging species.In nature, the fungus grows on leaves where it appears as black- or brown-colored splotches. Under controlled conditions, the mushrooms’ mycelium, or “vegetative branches” start to break down plastics in just a few weeks.
After a few months, the substance is completely broken down and assimilated into the body of the fungi, which is an extraordinary step up from the rate of natural decomposition: plastics can take up to 400 years to decompose on their own.
The current conclusion? Mushrooms might just be taking over the world, and not a moment too soon.