Nature's Recycler: Marine Fungus Feasts on Plastic, Offering New Solution


Fungus Among Us: Unlikely Ally Discovered in War on Ocean Plastic

In a groundbreaking scientific development, researchers have uncovered a marine fungus possessing a unique capacity to degrade polyethylene, one of the most prevalent and persistent forms of plastic contaminating the world's oceans.

The fungus, identified as Parengyodontium album, was discovered adhering to plastic debris collected from the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast accumulation of marine litter spanning an area twice the size of the state of Texas. Intrigued by its apparent ability to break down polyethylene, a team of scientists from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) initiated a comprehensive investigation.

"The scientific significance of this research lies in our ability to quantify the degradation process," stated lead author Annika Vaksmaa. Through rigorous experimentation, the researchers determined that P. album can degrade polyethylene at a rate of approximately 0.05 percent per day – a modest yet promising initial finding.

Notably, this fungus exhibits a remarkable trait: the ability to convert the degraded plastic into carbon dioxide, a far more environmentally benign byproduct compared to the microplastics typically resulting from plastic degradation. "The majority of the polyethylene utilized by P. album is converted into carbon dioxide, which the fungus subsequently excretes," Vaksmaa elucidated.

The discovery holds profound implications given the staggering volume of plastic pollution accumulating in the world's oceans. According to Vaksmaa, "Substantial quantities of plastics accumulate in subtropical gyres, ring-shaped currents in oceans where seawater is nearly stationary. In the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre alone, approximately 80 million kilograms of floating plastic have already amassed, and this gyre is merely one of six major global gyres."

While P. album is not the first organism identified as possessing plastic-degrading capabilities, it is among a select few fungi known to exhibit this remarkable trait. Bacteria have also been recognized as potential allies in combating plastic pollution, but the discovery of a fungus capable of breaking down one of the most ubiquitous and persistent forms of plastic represents a significant advancement.

"In laboratory conditions, P. album only degrades polyethylene that has been exposed to UV light for a brief period," Vaksmaa noted, suggesting that the fungus may be particularly effective at degrading plastic debris floating near the ocean's surface.

As the world grapples with the mounting crisis of plastic pollution, this discovery offers a glimmer of hope – a potential biological solution to a problem that has long seemed insurmountable. While substantial work remains, the identification of P. album represents a significant breakthrough in our understanding of how to combat this global environmental challenge.