When it was invented, plastic was a miracle material. Malleable, strong, durable and cheap; products made from the stuff could outlast their predecessors and be manufactured at a fraction of the price. But as we all know, too much of a good thing will give you a stomach ache, or perhaps a global environmental catastrophe. Over the years, these attractive qualities have unfortunately become part of the problem. Even if we all stopped using plastic tomorrow, there would still be over 269,000 tons of plastic waste in the oceans alone to clean up. And that's not even considering the countless quantities of micro-plastics which have now found their way into our drinking water, food and even air. At the current rate, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
These sad statistics will not be big news for most people, and an increasing number of us are making an effort to eliminate plastic from our lives. But whilst we grapple with bags for life and multiplying recycling boxes, the natural world has developed a more elegant solution, or more specifically, the microbial world has. Fungi are the least picky eaters of any microbiome. Various species have been observed growing on rotting biomass, toxic waste and even on radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, and now, some species have developed a taste for plastic.
Image: Some of Biohm's more colourful mycelium fungus, made by Mycology Lead, Ashley Granter in collaboration with Natura
Several months ago at our labs here in London, one of our own strains appeared to be making a bid for freedom, as it broke through the plastic sponge-seal on its container. Rather than growing through the sponge, it had actually managed to break down and assimilate the plastic into itself, using it as a food source. Evolving from eating leaf matter and the odd bit of tree bark to eating plastic, might seem like a huge jump. It’s something that would take millennia of natural selection for humans to achieve, but for certain fungi, it's a piece of cake. The inhabitants of the microbial world are far more flexible than we are, able to evolve and adapt to their environment within a generation, constantly modifying and improving upon their genome to maximise their productivity. Many of the fungal species that break down the tougher parts of wood (lignin, which itself can be turned into a bioplastic) are used to consuming complex polymers and have managed to use their same 'ligninolytic' enzymes to digest plastic.
Image: Fungus consuming plastic sponge.
Since our fungus developed its niche appetite, we have been developing the strain using techniques to enhance the natural process of evolution and increase its degradation capabilities, making a more efficient and effective version of the fungus that popped out of its jar months ago. Unlike other methods of dealing with plastic waste, myco-remediation actually removes the plastic from existence, rather than just cycling it back out into the world. By harnessing this technology we can produce food from plastic and imagine new bio-materials. We can produce more sustainable fuel, packaging, furniture and clothing. The a
pplications for this kind of myco-technology are truly boundless.