Mushrooms are amazing; we owe our lives to these amazing organisms. Mushrooms hold our topsoil together, help us sequester CO2, feed us, and offer a wide array of uses from food to medicine to manufacturing. A team of scientists at Yale have found a species that can eat plastic. This should have made major headlines, it’s the best news I’ve heard for our planet in a long time. I had to share.
Check out the article from Yale Alumni Magazine here. It describes a trip to the jungles of Ecuador where biological samples were collected. One of them was a fungus they identified as estalotiopsis microspora. Once back at the lab, the fungus was isolated and seemed to have a healthy appetite for polyurethane even when fed that exclusively.
We’ve all heard of polyurethane, but what are common items made from it? It combines the properties of rubber and plastic, so it’s uses are many (from Wikipedia):
Polyurethanes are used in the manufacture of flexible, high-resilience foam seating; rigid foam insulation panels; microcellular foam seals and gaskets; durable elastomeric wheels and tires; automotive suspension bushings; electrical potting compounds; high performance adhesives; surface coatings and surface sealants; synthetic fibers (e.g. Spandex); carpet underlay; and hard-plastic parts (i.e. for electronic instruments).
Even better? These things can chow down even in an oxygen-free environment – like deep in a landfill. This news has such great potential for our planet, in case you didn’t know, plastics can be quite bad for human health (see last weeks piece on endocrine disruptors here), as well as plant, animal and planet health. It’s in our oceans, in our cells, under the ground and it’s byproducts are in the air. We have a serious substance abuse issue around it as a species, our appetite needs to be severely curbed.Imagine injecting these spores into our landfills or finding that they could survive an aquatic ecosystem. Perhaps the great Pacific garbage patch could exist only in history books that noted our careless era of pollution. I’m dreaming, but this seems to have huge implications.
What does this have to do with political framing or discussion? Well, not a whole lot directly, but because it is part of our world, it does fit into the same sort of categories as everything else. We can also anticipate how this news could be received.
Would a polyurethane producer be happy to get their hands on this product the same way nail polish producers like to sell nail polish remover? Could this be an excuse to produce even more polyurethane? Could this spore get out of control and start eating vinyl siding, car parts, and Spandex before we want it to?
The conservative attitude on new discoveries is sort of like putting a man on the moon – we stick a flag in them and claim them for ourselves, then start drawing up a profit and loss statement around it. The progressive attitude is that the earth is in a state of crisis and we are in need of some magic to bring back a balance in the ecosystem. History shows that it is easier to figure out how to make money from any new product or discovery than it is to find a safe, agreeable process by which to benefit human kind with it. Part of the problem in this country is that in order to share a product with human kind, someone must foot the bill and the collectively kitty is shrinking while private profiteers have surpluses to invest (and agendas to push).
But like the moments after buying a lottery ticket, we can dream now. Maybe these mushrooms really are a magical piece of the puzzle. Maybe we really can turn this planet around. Maybe we did hit the jackpot.