October 9, 2018

Kew Report Showcases Potential of Fungi to Tackle Plastic Pollution

News Source: SDG Knowledge Hub

Author(s): Catherine Benson Wahlén

1 October 2018: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has released a report that describes how a plastic-eating fungus could help to tackle the world’s growing plastic waste problem. The report underscores the “fundamental importance” in understanding the contribution of fungi to biodiversity and its ecological functions.

The first-ever ‘State of the World’s Fungi’ report describes the world’s fungi, and presents positive interactions and insights on fungi, including positive plant-fungal interactions and useful fungi. Fungi, which are closer to animals than plants, provide carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling, and can even prevent desertification in drought-prone regions of the world. In addition, fungi support processes that humans rely on for everyday life, from medical applications to cleaning up the environment through bioremediation and synthesis of biofuels. As an illustration, Penicillium plays a role in cheese production, antibiotics and the synthesis of third-generation contraceptive pills. The report estimates that the global market for edible mushrooms is worth US$42 billion annually.

The report shares the findings from a study on the potential of fungi to break down plastic waste. When fungi “eat,” they secrete enzymes and absorb dissolved organic matter back into their cells. In Islamabad, Pakistan, researchers isolated the Aspergillus tubingensis fungus, in a waste site in the soil. They found that fungus was able to biodegrade polyester polyurethane (PU), a plastic, into smaller pieces. PU is used in products like synthetic leather and fridge insulation. This study suggests fungi could be developed into “one of the tools desperately needed to address the growing environmental problem of plastic waste.”

"The Aspergillus tubingensis fungus has been found to be able to biodegrade polyester polyurethane into smaller pieces."

In addition, fungi, such as Rhodotorula taiwanensis, are starting to be used to clean up sites contaminated by radioactive waste. Scientists are sequencing its genome to understand how this fungus survives and how it can be developed to clean up soils contaminated by radioactive waste.

The report states that 2,189 new species of fungi were described during 2017. An additional two million species of fungi have not yet been described, a task that the report identifies as of “fundamental importance” to the understanding of biodiversity and its ecological functions. In the report’s introduction, Kew Director of Science, Katherine Willis, emphasizes that fungi “should be viewed on a par with the plant and animal kingdoms,” explaining that the world has just begun to “scratch the surface of knowledge” of this group of organisms.

Fungi also provide benefits to agriculture. The report explains that endophytes and mycorrhizal fungi have the potential to reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, increasing the sustainability and environmental impacts of agriculture. Fungi also enhance crops’ nutrient uptake and increase their resilience to environmental stresses. The report underscores the applications of fungi to agriculture as a potentially significant resource for future development.

The report also presents challenges, observing that some species of fungi “can wreak havoc” on ecosystems and crops. For instance, fungal pathogens can devastate wild plant communities and crops, a challenge, the report observes, that is increasing with climate change. Examples include fungi that cause lethal diseases to trees, such as dogwood anthracnose, which affects native dogwoods, beech bark disease and white pine blister rust. The report considers a number of integrated approaches to minimize these threats and reduce the impact of fungal disease and calls for increased attention to understanding the impact of climate change on the fungal kingdom.

More than 100 scientists from 18 countries contributed to the report, which is the part of Kew’s ‘State of the World’s’ series.