Feb
07
2012

Yalies squeeze civilization-destroying treasure from the jealous grip of the Amazon

This is neither Amazonian fungus, nor polyurethane: But think about it, eh? Think about it ...
This is neither Amazonian fungus, nor polyurethane: But think about it, eh? Think about it ...Courtesy elpresidente408
Or whatever. Apparently Yale sends an expedition to a tropical rainforest each year, with the mission of finding, you know, neat stuff. And being tropical rainforests, there’s plenty of neat stuff to find. (That is to say, the rainforests have tremendously biodiversity, and each of the thousands of species that live in them has interesting features to study, etc.)

After analyzing all the samples the team gathered from last year’s expedition to the Amazon Rainforest, they’re announcing some interesting findings. Among them is the discovery of a species of fungus that can digest polyurethane.

Polyurethane, of course, is a very versatile plasticky material used in all sorts of products. Unfortunately, it also sort of lasts forever, and it isn’t biodegradable—nothing we know of eats it or helps it decompose.

Nothing we knew of until now, that is! The Yale team discovered several organisms that could digest polyurethane, and one—the fungus in question—that can do it in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. In fact, it can survive on polyurethane alone in either aerobic or anaerobic environments. The fungus itself, or the enzyme it produces that allows it to break down the plastic, could potentially become part of a solution for truly disposing of polyurethane materials, as opposed to putting them in landfills (where they’ll stay forever), burning them (which is toxic), or throwing them on the neighbor’s roof (which is fun, but limited in capacity).

The discovery also sort of goes to show you—or goes to show me, at least, because I don’t spend much time thinking about things that aren’t cats or guns—that searching for exciting and useful new species isn’t as straightforward as one might think. The polyurethane-eating fungus, for example, isn’t just some old mushroom sitting around in the jungle. It’s actually a microorganism that lives (harmlessly) inside the tissue of plants. So, like a mint hidden in the cushions of a crappy old chair, it could so easily have been overlooked and lost forever when we burned the chair down to make more room for soybeans and cattle.

Oh, I’m all mixed up. Pretty neat though, huh?

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