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August 29, 2011
Yale University undergraduates have discovered an organism that can digest plastic. The endophytes, found in fungi native to the Amazon rainforest, could have a dramatic impact on the bioremediation of landfilled plastic.
The discovery, as published in the journal “Applied and Environmental Microbiology,” was actually the result of a series of experiments by Yale students, beginning with Pria Anand, who collected the endophytes on a 2008 trip to Ecuador. She ran tests that demonstrated a reaction when one variety of endophyte was introduced to plastic. Another student, Jeffrey Huang, isolated which endophytes broke down chemical bonds most efficiently. Finally Jon Russell, another undergraduate, further narrowed down the family of Huang’s endophytes that showed the most promise for bioremediation, subsequently identifying the enzyme that most efficiently broke down polyurethane. The discovery is especially notable since the reaction takes place despite the absence of oxygen, making it ideal for landfill applications.
One hopes that any future Amazonian collection expeditions will not be conducted in polyurethane rafts.
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