The Mushroom That Eats Plastic

Mushroom 001Is this the answer to the ever-growing plastic scourge on our planet? From co.exist:

The Amazon is home to more species than almost anywhere else on earth. One of them, carried home recently by a group from Yale University, appears to be quite happy eating plastic in airless landfills.

The group of students, part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador. The mission was to allow “students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way.” The group searched for plants, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue. As it turns out, they brought back a fungus new to science with a voracious appetite for a global waste problem: polyurethane.

The common plastic is used for everything from garden hoses to shoes and truck seats. Once it gets into the trash stream, it persists for generations. Anyone alive today is assured that their old garden hoses and other polyurethane trash will still be here to greet his or her great, great grandchildren. Unless something eats it.

The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first anyone has found to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and–even more surprising–do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment that is close to the condition at the bottom of a landfill…

[continues at co.exist]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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16 Comments on "The Mushroom That Eats Plastic"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Feb 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |

    Only drawback:  They emit a noxious gas that induces flesh-eating necrosis upon contact with human skin.

  2. From the article: “In the future, our trash compactors may simply be giant fields of voracious fungi.” While it won’t solve all of the worlds problems, this still makes me feel a little hopeful. Am imagining a time-lapse video of a huge mound of plastic, slowly yet surely being consumed and transformed. 

    There was a fascinating interview some time ago (and I could have sworn it was on this site…) with a guy who lives either in Washington or Oregon…he works with fungi and has a theory about how they could – if implemented properly and widely enough – significantly improve a number of different issues which currently plague humanity. Would love to get a hold of that link again if anyone remembers what the hell I am talking about?  

  3. Yeah, this could be huge. If you are interested in speculative sci-fi that involves mushrooms evolving to eat all sorts of synthetics, and then grow fruit made of synthetics, read this:

  4. DeepCough | Feb 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |

    Why do I get the feeling that a voracious fungus will be the death of the human race, as opposed to a nuclear bomb or infectious virus?

    • Mr Willow | Feb 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |

      This is the hour when moonstruck poets know
      What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents
      And tints of flowers fill Nithon’s continents,
      Such as in no poor earthly garden blow.
      Yet for each dream these winds to us convey,
      A dozen more of ours they sweep away!

      • JohnFrancisBittrich | Feb 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm |

        Would that I could “like” this comment about 40 more times…

    • Don’t fear them! The truth is that without fungi, forests don’t function properly. They are crucial in the production of soil in forests. As mushrooms are HIGHLY adaptable to food sources, and poisonous mushrooms are actually the exception to the rule… the real danger comes in creating unnatural and dangerous environments, say… landfills and e-waste dumping sites. The strains of fungi that could be developed from this are basically unpredictable. If we protect our environment properly, we should have nothing to fear from it.

  5. Crawling_Chaos | Feb 1, 2012 at 3:12 pm |

    It’s always interesting when news takes this long to come out.
    The co.exist article has a journal link of their publishing (have to pay to read, unfortunately) which it mentions from last year, but apparently the discovery happened back in ’10, after a pass-off between two undergrads and happening very quickly afterwards at that (CNN link from last year
    Upon further search this same fungus appears to not be exclusive to the rainforest, having been found in a variety of plants as a type of internal fungus, described as a type of blight that attacks the plants leaves if they’ve been damaged or injured by weather or disease (,, or as a type of biotic relationship upon discovery of the cancer drug Taxol being discovered as a product of the fungus ( as well as at least one other in the genus ( (Interesting wikipedia info on Taxol
    Considering the widespread dispersion of this fungus from the Amazon to Tibet and Japan, I’m wondering how hard it would be to replicate the experiment… or how rather, how dangerous?

  6. You know whats funny George Carlin in his blue electron comedy routine said something like this. He said that when the human species is wiped out nothing will be left behind but plastic and even that will be incorporated into the earth.

  7. Of course there’s a noxious gas. There isn’t a thing on earth that doesn’t have something that will contradict it. If something is too cold, you use something to warm it up and if something is too hot, you use something to cool it down. If this fungus can eat plastic, it will eat human flesh. Surely the noxious gas is good for something that the fungus’ eating abilities contradicts, right?

  8. This is great and all… but there are already mushrooms that can eat plastic. You have to train them a little bit, but people already have. Mushrooms are incredibly adaptable… and they’ll eat just about anything, actually… Sarin gas and HIV can be denatured by mycelium. Oil waste and coliform bacteria… fungi will eat it all.

    I’m currently in the process of breeding my own plastic eating mushroom strain. Pink Oyster Mushrooms are common enough and are a great starting point. For more… read the book: Mycelium Running: How mushrooms can save the world.

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