Scientists Find Plastic-Eating Fungus Feasting on Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Chomp Chomp

Does nature have to do everything itself?

An international cohort of marine scientists discovered an ocean-borne fungus chomping through plastic trash suspended in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as detailed in a new study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Dubbed Parengyodontium album, the fungus was discovered among the thin layers of other microbes that live in and around the floating plastic pile in the North Pacific.

According to the study, it's the fourth known marine fungus capable of consuming and breaking down plastic waste. Researchers found that P. album was specifically able to break down UV-exposed carbon-based polyethylene, which is the type of plastic most commonly used to make consumer products, like water bottles and grocery bags — and the most pervasive form of plastic waste that pollutes Earth's oceans.

"It was already known that UV light breaks down plastic by itself mechanically," said study lead author Annika Vaksmaa, a marine biologist and biogeochemist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), in a statement, "but our results show that it also facilitates the biological plastic breakdown by marine fungi."

Don't Get Carried Away

Before you get ahead of yourself: no, this discovery doesn't mean that you should start consuming single-use plastics with abandon. Our oceans are overrun with destructive plastic pollutants, and refraining from plastic use as much as possible is still our best bet at keeping plastic from plugging up the Earth's vital — though fragile — oceans with animal- and environment-harming garbage.

Mitigating and removing the plastic that's already clogging Earth's waterways is still an important goal. But doing so unfortunately isn't quite as simple as scooping it out of the ocean en masse. Trawling for plastic with large nets can disturb marine life, and efforts to do so are costly and often wasteful themselves.

So in the fight to find a way to reduce ocean plastic, finding a new fungus capable of speeding up the plastic degradation process is an exciting new turn. But it's not a cure-all. According to the research, lab-grown P. album was observed to break down a given piece of UV-treated plastic at a rate of roughly 0.05 percent per day for every nine-day period. Which isn't nothing, but it'd take a very long time for the bacteria to get through the entirety of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, let alone the millions of metric tons of plastics that enter the ocean every year.

Regardless, the P. album finding is heartening — and according to the researchers, this latest discovery suggests that more plastic-eating organisms might be out there.

"Marine fungi can break down complex materials made of carbon," added Vaksmaa, adding that it's "likely that in addition to the four species identified so far, other species also contribute to plastic degradation."

More on plastic-hungry microbes: Scientists Gene-Hack Bacteria to Turn Waste Plastic Into Kevlar-Like Spider Silk