Between the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the news that over 90% of plastic isn't recycled, and the likely state of your personal trash can, it's clear that the world has a plastic problem.
Scientists around the world have continued to discover different types of fungus that can degrade specific types of plastic.
We now have 150 million tons of plastic in our oceans, according to estimates; by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish. And every new batch of trash compounds the issue: Plastic is notorious for its longevity and resistance to natural degradation.
Enter the humble mushroom. In 2011, Yale students made headlines with the discovery of a fungus in Ecuador, Pestalotiopsis microspora, that has the ability to digest and break down polyurethane plastic, even in an air-free (anaerobic) environment—which might even make it effective at the bottom of landfills. Although the professor who led the research trip cautioned for moderate expectations, there's an undeniable appeal to the idea of a speedier, cleaner, side effect-free, and natural method of disposing of plastic.
A few years later, this particular application for fungus got a jolt of publicity from designer Katharina Unger, of LIVIN Studio, when she collaborated with the microbiology faculty at Utrecht University to create a project called the Fungi Mutarium. They used the mycelium—which is the threadlike, vegetative part of a mushroom—of two very common types of edible mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster mushrooms) and Schizophyllum commune (Split gill mushrooms). Over the course of a few months, the fungi fully degraded small pieces of plastic while growing around pods of edible agar. The result? In place of plastic, a small mycelium snack.
Other researchers have continued to tackle the subject. In 2017, scientist Sehroon Khan and his research team at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kunming, China discovered another biodegrading fungus in a landfill in Islamabad, Pakistan: Aspergillus tubingensis, which turns out to be capable of colonizing polyester polyurethane (PU) and breaking it down it into smaller pieces within the span of two months. (PU often shows up in the form of packing foam—the kind of thing you might find cushioning a microwave or a new TV.)
Utrecht University has continued its research, and scientists around the world have continued to discover different types of fungus that can degrade different, specific types of plastic. Khan and his team alone have discovered around 50 more species since 2017. They are currently working on finding the optimal conditions of temperature and environment for each strain of fungus to do its work.
Their biggest problem is perhaps the most common obstacle in innovative scientific research: Cash. "We are developing these things for large-scale," Khan says. "But [it] needs a lot of funding to get to the real application of plastic waste." They plan to apply for a patent soon and to publish three new articles about their most recent research, which might help boost interest and secure more grants.
Is there a way to get the fungi to work faster and to process bigger batches?
Khan's team is working on the breakdown process at this point, but researchers who want to continue in Unger's model of an edible end product also need to figure out how to efficiently and properly prepare the plastic input. "The fungi is sensitive to infection from bacteria," Unger says—which could turn it into a destructive mold. "This is a challenge for industrialization—[the] sterilization of the materials, and making the fungi resistant, strong, and faster-growing, to allow for a commercial process."
Whether it's Khan's polyurethane-chomping fungus or the edible agar pods from the Fungi Mutarium, the biggest question is still about scale. Both projects took several months to fully degrade a small amount of plastic. That's much shorter than plastic's normal lifespan, but still won't be enough to keep up with the global production of plastic. Is there a way to get the fungi to work faster and to process bigger batches?
We'd also need to figure out where these plastic recyclers would live. Could individuals keep a small compost-like heap, feeding in their own plastic and harvesting the mushrooms? Or could this be a replacement for local recycling centers?
There are still only these few small experiments for reference. But taken together, they suggest a fascinating future for waste disposal: An army of mycelium chewing quietly and methodically through our plastic bags and foam coffee cups—and potentially even creating a new food source along the way. We could have our trash and eat it, too.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”