Wood-munching fungi can break down common type of plastic Fungi isolated from rotting hardwood trees can break down sheets of low-density polyethylene, one of the most abundant plastics on Earth Fungi that typically decay hardwood trees have been found to break down polyethylene, a plastic used in shopping bags, food wrap and bottles. Hardwood trees are notoriously resistant to decay. A small number of fungi, however, can attach to these trees and degrade the lignin, a strong polymer that is key to wood structure, in its trunks.
“Lignin is the hardest natural polymer on Earth,” says Renuka Attanayake at the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka. “If the fungi can degrade lignin, they must have a very strong battery of enzymes.”
Attanayake and her colleagues decided to investigate whether these fungi could be used to decompose polyethylene, one of the most abundant plastics on Earth. The team collected small pieces of decayed hardwood from Dimbulagala dry zone forest reserve in Sri Lanka. In the laboratory, they isolated the fungi from the wood and identified 21 species.
Each of the fungi was incubated with sheets of low-density polyethylene between 28 and 30°C. They repeated this in the presence and absence of hardwood.