It Lives in the Rainforest and Eats…Plastic?

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Rainforests are complex systems with tremendous biodiversity housing as much as half of all known varieties of plants. Experts say that just a four-square-mile area of rainforest may contain as many as 1,500 different types of flowering plants and 750 species of trees, all which have evolved specialized survival mechanisms over the millennia that mankind is just starting to learn how to appropriate for its own purposes.

Rainforests are critical to the survival and well-being of life on Earth for countless reasons. They recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen and one-fifth of the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon Basin. Currently, over 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide came from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.

As you may have noticed in recent years more than ever, every ecological system on Earth is in severe decline. The pursuit of profit has been prioritized over the common good. As long as we require money to live, this unwanted behavior will continue.

Yale students on their expedition: Photo credit Yale

Yale students on their expedition: Photo credit Yale

One of the biggest threats on our planet today is plastic. It’s affordable to produce, versatile, and its everywhere! The problem is that it doesn’t biodegrade or go back to nature. All the plastic ever made today, about 300 million tons per year, is still with us today and will be here for your children, their children and for the next 1,000 years basically if not forever.

In 2011, students in Yale’s Rain Forest Expedition and Laboratory class visited the Ecuadorian rainforest for an opportunity to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way. Enrolled students explore the diverse ecosystems of various forests where they collect plant samples.

So, what in the rainforest did they find that actually eats plastic or polyurethane?

Pestalotiopsis microspora

Pestalotiopsis microspora

It’s a species of fungi known as Pestalotiopsis microspora. It’s the first fungus species to be able to survive exclusively on polyurethane and, more importantly, able to do so in anaerobic conditions—the same conditions found in the bottom of landfills. This makes the fungus a prime candidate for bioremediation projects that could finally provide an alternative to just burying the plastic and hoping for the best.

The Yale team published their findings in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

They concluded that the microbe is “a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation.”

 Pestalotiopsis microspora

Pestalotiopsis microspora

In the future, our trash compactors may simply be giant fields of voracious fungi.

It is critical that we respect nature, who we are, and live in harmony with the rainforest. Today, we live in a systems that drives shameless deforestation behavior and additionally puts animals under constant attack.

Rainforests once covered 14% of the earth’s land surface; now they cover a mere 6% and experts estimate that the last remaining rainforests could be consumed in less than 40 years.

Nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter century due to rainforest deforestation. What cures and other amazing discoveries have we lost forever?

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