A new United Nations-backed report has revealed that fungi can help wean the world off its plastic addiction by degrading polyurethane in just a matter of weeks.
According to the first-ever “State of the World’s Fungi” report, Scientists at London’s Kew Botanical Gardens reported that these organisms have the potential to break down waste plastic.
The report is an important advance in a world where momentum is building to reverse the toxic tide of plastic that is killing marine life and polluting the ocean.
According to the UN, at least eight million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year, sometimes decomposing into tiny micro-plastics that make their way into the food chain.
Senior Kew Gardens Scientist, Ilia Leitch, said that other fungi and microorganisms were also being explored for their potential to degenerate different types of plastic.
The report explained that, by understanding how the fungi break down these bonds and what the optimal conditions are, “you can then increase the speed at which they do it”.
Noting that there may be as many as 3.8 million fungal species, with only 144,000 named, the authors – a team of some 100 scientists from 18 countries – argue that further research into these organisms could provide answers to some of humanity’s greatest challenges.
The report spelt out that advances in their agricultural applications could translate into improved food security, environmental sustainability and increased production revenues.
In addition to recycling nutrients and helping crops to grow efficiently, fungi also provide compounds that produce antibiotics, immune-suppressants and statins that block cholesterol-producing liver enzyme action.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), there is mounting evidence that climate change is affecting the ranges of species and biodiversity in ways that are still not comprehensible.
Fungi themselves are also under threat, particularly in high latitude areas where average temperatures continue to rise, such as the Arctic, UNEP said.
The UN environment agency said these changes were already affecting fungi reproduction, geographic distributions and activity, with possible knock-on effects for ecosystems.
Niklas Hagelberg, a UNEP climate change and ecosystems expert, said: “Species react differently to climate change, which disrupts the delicate interaction between them.
“This further complicates conservation; we need to quickly add climate change to our ecosystem management effort.”
Meanwhile, the Kew Gardens report showcased the kind of pioneering thought that would be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March 2019, on “innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production”.
Ahead of the 2019 assembly, UNEP is urging people to “think beyond and live within,” a motto that is aimed at tackling environmental challenges and assuring a prosperous future – that may include a role for fungi, that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
By Prudence Arobani