Yale University undergraduates including Jon Russell, of the class of 2011, have discovered organisms in Amazon rain-forest fungi that can degrade polyurethanes.
The discovery, featured 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 students were participating in a 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 co-instructor Kaury Kucera, a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
Students collect endophytes found in rain-forest plants and take them 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 Ecuador trip, student Pria Anand decided to see if the endophytes she collected could be used in bioremediation. A rudimentary test showed a chemical reaction did take place when an endophyte she found was introduced to the plastic.
Student Jeffrey Huang analyzed endophytes collected by other students on the 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 PU.
Other agents can degrade PU, but the identified enzyme holds particular promise because it also degrades plastic in the absence of oxygen — which the university points out is “a prerequisite for bioremediation of buried trash.”