NEW HAVEN, CONN. (Aug. 4, 12:15 p.m. ET) — Yale University undergraduates including Jon Russell, of the class of 2011, have discovered organisms in Amazon rainforest fungi that can degrade polyurethanes.
The discovery, which features in the journal “Applied and Environmental Microbiology,” may lead to innovative ways to reduce waste in the world's landfills, according to a Yale news release.
The undergraduates were participating in Yale's Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“This shows amazing things can happen when you let undergraduates be creative,” said Kaury Kucera, postdoctoral researcher in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and co-instructor of the course.
Students collect endophytes found in rainforest plants and take them back to New Haven to test for biological activity and then analyze any that show biological activity to see what medical or other uses might be possible.
On the 2008 trip to Ecuador, student Pria Anand decided to see if the endophytes she collected could be used in bioremediation. In a rudimentary test, Anand showed a chemical reaction did take place when an endophyte she found was introduced to plastic.
Jeffrey Huang analyzed endophytes collected by other students on the 2008 trip to find those that broke down chemical bonds most efficiently.
Then Russell discovered that one family of endophytes identified by Huang showed the most promise for bioremediation. Russell went on to identify the enzyme that most efficiently broke down polyurethane.
While other agents can degrade PU, the enzyme identified by Yale students holds particular promise because it also degrade plastic in the absence of oxygen — a feature which the university points out is “a prerequisite for bioremediation of buried trash.”