Quickly eats polyurethane. Takes the next 400 years of decomposition time off.
May 15, 2012 2:55 AM   Subscribe

Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi [scientific paper]. Pestalotiopsis microspora lives in dark, damp and anaerobic conditions in the Amazon, is a candidate for introduction to landfills, can survive on only polyurethane, and may solve the plastic 100-400 year decomposition issue [non-technical summary].
posted by jaduncan (40 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
So, this gets out, and no more polyester clothes? w00t!
posted by Goofyy at 3:42 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a little misleading. Polyurethane is not what we make plastic bags from.
posted by Glomar response at 3:43 AM on May 15, 2012


It's easy to make a plastic bag decompose faster than 100-400 years. Put in the ocean, give it plenty of sunlight, and it will break up into particulate matter in no time.
posted by Jpfed at 3:50 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


So we're planning on returning carbon to the atmosphere instead of leaving it safely sequestered in a landfill? Is this really a good idea?
posted by Slithy_Tove at 4:08 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


[edited "plastic bag" to just "plastic" per OP request.]
posted by taz at 4:11 AM on May 15, 2012


What could go wrong?
posted by sfts2 at 4:18 AM on May 15, 2012


It's easy to make a plastic bag decompose faster than 100-400 years. Put in the ocean, give it plenty of sunlight, and it will break up into particulate matter in no time.

On the flip side of that equation - in my experience biodegradable plastic bags sold for kitchen composting caddies take more than 3 years to break down in a composter here in the UK. Putting them roughly on par with ordinary plastic bags (which I suspect they are).
posted by srboisvert at 4:19 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


What could go wrong?

Let me count the ways. Introducing non-native organisms to "solve" a current problem has a history of producing unintended consequences that are often worse than the original problem. In the case at hand, while the fungi can exist on only polyurethane, that's not all there is in landfills. Suppose it finds something it likes better? Would that leave the plastic untouched, or would it devour everything it could? What might the products of its eating other stuff be?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:31 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have visions of the plastic eating bacteria decomposing the plane in flight in The Andromeda Strain, a bacteria that eats plastic, seriously?
posted by sfts2 at 4:39 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


can survive on only polyurethane, and may solve the plastic 100-400 year decomposition issue

Polyurethane is considered a good insulation in building because it doesn't break down and if one has a water leak in the building envelope it still won't break down AND doesn't hold the water like a sponge.

Now, to "solve" this "problem" a critter will be mass produced that will "eat" the Polyurethane? Way to destroy the R value. Home can go back to consuming more energy to heat/cool.

Here is a "solution" to the plastic "problem". Stop making so much plastic.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:39 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wasn't there a Canadian Teenager who won a science contest a while back with this idea? He had some bacteria that could eat and decompose plastic. Is this based on that? Or if not, what happened to him and his idea? I think it may even have been on Mefi.
posted by marienbad at 4:41 AM on May 15, 2012


Home can go back to consuming more energy to heat/cool.

We could go back a little further to smart building practices.
posted by DU at 4:43 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Generally speaking, if organisms such as this were capable of speading unchecked and indiscriminately destroying every bit of plastic in sight, they would most likely have done so already. Getting them working on hard-to-digest materials takes careful coaxing with quite specific environmental conditions.

So while I don't disagree that introducing foreign species into ecosystems is generally a risky idea, I think that predicting the collapse of civilisation on the basis of one over-hyped paper is just buying into our increasingly stupid media's fake portrayal of science.
posted by pipeski at 4:54 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


Here is a "solution" to the plastic "problem". Stop making so much plastic.

Unless you have a "time machine" that's not really a "solution"
posted by crayz at 5:04 AM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


We have tons of different wood eating fungus out there and yet, somehow, I live in a neighborhood composed mostly of 80-100 year old houses. There are things out there that will cheerfully eat pretty much any natural fiber you'd care to name, but I have clothing made of many of those.

This stuff needs moisture and anaerobic conditions. What is it that you currently keep in moist anaerobic conditions that you're interested in keeping? I can't think of much that doesn't also get autoclaved as part of the canning process.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:09 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


So we're planning on returning carbon to the atmosphere instead of leaving it safely sequestered in a landfill? Is this really a good idea?


Fungi are like mushrooms. The plastic gets transformed into a mushroom, which degrades faster than the bag would have on its own. It is not the same as throwing plastic bags in an incinerator.

a bacteria that eats plastic

It's not a bacteria. and I doubt it's quick relative to anything other than the time it would take the plastic to decay on its own. From the paper:

Particularly robust activity was observed among several isolates in the genus Pestalotiopsis, although it was not a universal feature of this genus. Two Pestalotiopsis microspora isolates were uniquely able to grow on PUR as the sole carbon source under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions.

It's SOME of the Pestalotiopsis spores, not all of them. Adapting fungi to various sources can be done ( you can grow mushrooms in coffee grounds, for example) but it takes selective breeding.

Bioremediation is fascinating stuff, but it's not magic nanobots that are going to run amok and eat everything in sight.
posted by dubold at 5:23 AM on May 15, 2012


We could go back a little further to smart building practices.

PassivHaus shows how it can be done today and will work even in Alaska.

Hard to have your suggestion work during the dark times of the year.

So while I don't disagree that introducing foreign species into ecosystems is generally a risky idea

The last time that man said "Oh hey! lets take a natural critter and improve it for man's benefit" got stopped.
The engineered bacterium produces far beyond the required amount of alcohol per gram soil than required to kill any terrestrial plant. This would result in the death of all terrestrial plants, because the parent bacterium has been found in the root systems of all plants where anyone has looked for its presence. This could have been the single most devastating impact on human beings since we would likely have lost corn, wheat, barley, vegetable crops, trees, bushes, etc, conceivably all terrestrial plants.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:24 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here is a "solution" to the plastic "problem". Stop making so much plastic.
Unless you have a "time machine" that's not really a "solution"


One could start now with plastic reduction. (Peak oil in theory will take care of excess plastic)
posted by rough ashlar at 5:26 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]




Re: Biodegradation as a tactic.

There are a lot of critters that can decompose polyurethanes, especially polyester polyurethanes. But as others have mentioned, this is not a silver bullet. It may have application to specific remediation under controlled conditions, yet to be determined. But human nature remains unchanged, so the root of the problem is unaffected.



Re: Peak oil and plastics.

70% of plastics in the US are made from natural gas. Because the market price of natural gas is so low right now and supply exceeds demand, I expect more US plastic manufacture for then next 20 years, not less.
posted by Glomar response at 5:44 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see the important question addressed anywhere: Are these mushrooms good to eat?
posted by Mitheral at 5:44 AM on May 15, 2012


Wasn't there a Canadian Teenager who won a science contest a while back with this idea? He had some bacteria that could eat and decompose plastic. Is this based on that? Or if not, what happened to him and his idea? I think it may even have been on Mefi.

I believe that kid actually used a bacteria to eat the composite they make hockey sticks out of and it got loose. At least that is what I think when I watch a hockey game.
posted by srboisvert at 5:44 AM on May 15, 2012


Let's GM that sucker to make it a super-bug and end the world as we know it.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:54 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


"...when wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death."
posted by jquinby at 6:03 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: it's not magic nanobots that are going to run amok and eat everything in sight.
posted by Blue_Villain at 6:16 AM on May 15, 2012


The last time that man said "Oh hey! lets take a natural critter and improve it for man's benefit" got stopped.

It was a bit of a speed bump for the the NZ Green Party as well.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:17 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


You fools - we're all doomed (SLYT)
posted by aeshnid at 6:19 AM on May 15, 2012


The last time that man said "Oh hey! lets take a natural critter and improve it for man's benefit"

...it saved a billion lives!

Not that I am necessarily in favor of this particular example, but let's not just dismiss genetic engineering as though it weren't capable of good (and as though we hadn't been doing it for thousands of years).
posted by echo target at 6:33 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


...it saved a billion lives!

Well, if those billion people weren't taking up so much space, there'd be plenty of room in landfills for our useless plastic. Check and mate!
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:10 AM on May 15, 2012


...it saved a billion lives!

Huh, I thought you were going to link to another well-known fungus.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:28 AM on May 15, 2012


Is there a reason we should be so concerned about stuff that's already in a landfill?

I suppose some are concerned with expanding landfills, though that doesn't seem like a very pressing issue. Some folks dislike plastic for whatever reason. But a PE eating fungi doesn't address that either.

PE eating fungi seems like a solution to all the PE garbage out there that's not in a landfill, and not likely to ever make it to a landfill. But is that a real problem?
posted by 2N2222 at 7:42 AM on May 15, 2012


Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters
posted by Splunge at 8:16 AM on May 15, 2012


...let's not just dismiss genetic engineering as though it weren't capable of good (and as though we hadn't been doing it for thousands of years)

There's genetic engineering in the sense of selective breeding, and then there's engineering in the sense of splicing genes. We haven't been transferring genetic material across taxa for thousands of years.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:19 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oops, I meant polyurethane, not PE. Sorry for the confusion.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:44 AM on May 15, 2012


It's easy to make a plastic bag decompose faster than 100-400 years. Put in the ocean, give it plenty of sunlight, and it will break up into particulate matter in no time.

As I understand it, this is actually kind of a problem. The plastic doesn't break down into component "safe" bits; you just have much smaller pieces of plastic. The chemical composition hasn't changed significantly, but now it's a lot easier for it to build up in a lot more animals.
posted by curious nu at 8:49 AM on May 15, 2012


In the seminal work, Pestalotiopsis-9, The lone figure, naked, stood on a barren peak, thumbing his nose at the onrushing apocalypse. The bacteria spreads exponentially, taking only six steps to reach Kevin Bacon's house. By then it's far, far too late.

Landfills implode, clothing industries disappear (rendering thousands of Third-World Children unemployed), drug dealers have to use paper sacks, mono-filament fishing lines evaporate. On the other hand, wild ducks no longer strangle themselves on those little plastic chingie-dingies that hold six-packs together.

So, there it went.
posted by mule98J at 9:19 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rough Ashlar sorry to be favorite-bombing you but you are right on target. The alcohol bacteria, wow. Everyone go read that blurb till you get it—science is grand but our facility for controlling the effects of our technology is embryonic to put it charitably.

We are not allowed to play with genes until we develop enough control over global policy to stop damaging the land and exchange our linear waste-producing systems back for the sustainable feedback cycles that make this planet habitable. The only valid way to do this is through pervasive and deep education. There are no shortcuts, and for a long time ahead we need to exercise restraint in the face of temptations to make fast "progress" on the serious problems we have already caused.

Also the jury's very much still out on how many lives the green revolution "saved". Do you count those it created in the first place? The population boom that followed sure has compounded our collective burden in terms of education, pollution, energy. The GR was about making money and using food as a weapon, long term consequences be damned.
posted by maniabug at 9:22 AM on May 15, 2012


"The engineered bacterium produces far beyond the required amount of alcohol per gram soil than required to kill any terrestrial plant. This would result in the death of all terrestrial plants, because the parent bacterium has been found in the root systems of all plants where anyone has looked for its presence. This could have been the single most devastating impact on human beings since we would likely have lost corn, wheat, barley, vegetable crops, trees, bushes, etc, conceivably all terrestrial plants."

This paragraph is about a half step of logic away from warning of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide.
posted by maryr at 10:18 AM on May 15, 2012


maryr: "This paragraph is about a half step of logic away from warning of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide."


Hey, that stuff should be banned. Fish use it for carnal recreation, therefore it's sinful and must be ended.
posted by dejah420 at 10:46 AM on May 15, 2012


Me Go Too Far!
posted by Mister Moofoo at 12:16 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


So how does this fungus taste?
posted by porpoise at 8:35 PM on May 15, 2012


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