EnvironmentPlastic Pollution

This Mushroom Eats Plastic and Could Clean Our Landfills

Image Courtesy of Cassandra Tejeda and Matthew Schink

Like
it or not, plastic devours much of the human-created landscape. From signs to
streets to building material and even the water we drink, everything comes
wrapped in a single-use nightmare of waste.

Switching
to more natural packaging seems obvious but ignores the fact that many
manufacturing machines were designed with less biodegradable containers in
mind. Plus, even if every nation discontinued the use of single-use plastics
immediately, Earth and her waters would remain covered in patches of discarded
gas station meal wrappings for decades or longer.

However, nature often finds a way to triumph over man-made ignorance. One of these special designs, a certain magic mushroom, may contribute to saving both our earth and humanity from extinction under a mountain of refuse.

What Is Pestalotiopsis
Microspora?

Ever
since the first hungry human braved possible death by poison to avoid
starvation, mushrooms have remained a part of popular folklore and wisdom.
Native Americans used a species of mushroom to commune with the spirit world,
and early parchments from other cultures support the idea they weren’t alone.
Ironically, though, a variation of the tool once used to commune with the Great
Beyond now may save very mortal flesh.

The
mushroom Pestalotiopsis
Microspora
possesses unique taste buds if fungus had a tongue. Most
mushrooms raise eyebrows for growing in human or animal waste. Pestalotipsis does so, too,
but not the kind of waste that commonly went into nighttime chamber pots back
in the days immediately following the Industrial Revolution.

Pestalotiopsis doesn’t dine on poo. This unique fungus prefers chowing down on plastic [1]. And humanity is far luckier for it.

How Do
Mushrooms Grow, Anyway?

Regular
gardeners find it unsurprising that mushrooms typically grow best in
unpalatable substrates. They’ve experienced the dubious joy of schlepping home
a heavy bag of mulch from the local nursery to blanket the delicate roots of
their new tomato plants only to discover they were growing more than the base
of a pasta dish.

Unlike chlorophyll-containing plants, mushrooms don’t rely on photosynthesis but on taking nourishment from the soil or other material where their spores land [2]. They can grow independently of sunshine given adequate warmth. In a way, mushrooms more resemble certain other living organisms that survive near sulfuric oceanic vents than daisies or daylilies.

Put
it this way — if humans were plants such as trees or dandelions, mushrooms
would win major starring roles on “The Walking Dead.” Granted, they’d
be painted as the undead, but when it comes to fungi, the title of
“zombie” hardly sounds insulting. After all, if humanity is to
resurrect itself, it may need a bit of “super” natural assistance.

Clearing Up
Human Clutter with Helpful Shrooms

Outside
of chefs armed with cloves of garlic and white wine, mushrooms enjoy little
appreciation today. The recent discovery of the abilities of Pestalotiopsis may lead
more than those working the kitchens to idolize this humble fellow inhabitant
of Earth.

While
scientists have identified bacteria that can devour ocean plastic, organisms
which could do so on soil have proven harder to come by. One of the most common
forms of plastic waste, polyethylene terephthalate, the primary ingredient in
most single-use plastics found in landfills, required photosynthesis at the
minimum to reproduce. This meant refuge buried deep in landfills where the
energy of the sun could not penetrate remained buried until unearthed by
developers.

Because
Pestalotipsis requires
no photosynthesis, scientists hope the fungus will begin cleaning landfills
from the bottom up, discarded Evian and snack trays alike. Instead of needing
to work their way down, the mushrooms will push their way up, leaving few
scraps in their wake.

The discovery may have come none too soon. Even if human beings take aggressive action to combat climate change, should global temperatures increase by as little a two degrees Fahrenheit, hundreds of millions of people will find their homes underwater [3]. And these floodwaters won’t reside in time for people to simply pick up and rebuild.

The Politics
of Climate Change and
Pestalotiopsis

While
many nations have accepted the scientific reality of climate change and its
implications for human life, some political developments, such as those
occurring in the U.S., threaten to derail progress. However, few world leaders,
regardless of their ideological leanings, can find much of a fight to pick with
a fungus.

Even the human food chain has undergone disruption in the wake of plastic pollution. Those who consume seafood regularly may unwittingly consume a hefty dose of polyethylene along with their shrimp cocktail [4]. The long-term health effects of such consumption remain unknown, but researchers know from basic observation that animals who consume plastic waste slowly starve to death even while they consume more and more.

Trying
to enforce compliance with measures intended to combat pollution on an
international scale proves difficult, but allowing a fungus to do the dirty
work bypasses cultural and political differences. Human beings, once accustomed
to even self-defeating habits are slow to change, but Pestalotipsis requires no
sacrifice or behavioral modifications. Philosophers can wrangle with the debate
as to why people behave in a manner counter-intuitive to the survival of the
species. In the meantime, though, the planet needs saving, and this humble
fungus offers one way to accomplish that goal.

Cleaning Up
Plastic Waste Naturally

Should
people fail to address the problem of plastic waste, the impact on human and
animal life makes continued survival on this planet a dubious proposition.
Fortunately, Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom has provided a nearly
painless way to address this critical issue. By working with, not against nature,
the world can enjoy the convenience and hygienic benefits of single-use
plastics without traveling the road to extinction in the process.

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