Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Organism that 'eats' plastic identified

Aug. 2, 2011

Organisms growing in fungi in the Amazon rainforest can degrade polyurethane, suggesting innovative ways to reduce waste in landfills, researchers say.

Yale University undergraduates taking part in the school's Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course discovered the organisms, a university release said Tuesday

In the course, students search for and collect organisms called endophytes found in rainforest plants that are then taken back to New Haven to be tested for biological activity that could lead to medical or other uses.

Student Jonathan R. Russell discovered that one family of endophytes identified by previous course participants produced an enzyme that efficiently broke down polyurethane plastic.

"This shows amazing things can happen when you let undergraduates be creative," said Kaury Kucera, a researcher in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and co-instructor of the rainforest course.

While other agents can degrade polyurethane, the enzyme identified by Yale students holds particular promise because it also degrades plastic in the absence of oxygen, important for dealing with buried trash, the university said.

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