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:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.