Fungi could play an important role in addressing the world's growing plastic waste problem, according to a new study published by researchers with Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London.
The scientists have found a fungus that may be able to break down plastics in a matter of weeks.
"This is incredibly exciting because [plastic waste] is such a big environmental challenge. If this can be the solution, that would be great," Ilia Leitch, a senior scientist on the team, said at a news conference on Tuesday, CNN reports.
"We are in the early days of research but I would hope to see the benefits of fungi that can eat plastic in five to 10 years," Leitch added.
Since plastics take years to break down — an estimated 20 to 600 years, depending on the type of plastic — this research could be revolutionary. The incredible fungus, Aspergillus tubingensis, which grows in Pakistan, could speed up the decomposition process of plastic dramatically, eating some plastics "in weeks rather than years," the report states.
The report, called "The State of the World's Fungi," included research from 100 scientists based in 18 countries, who are working to identify previously unknown fungal species and their benefits, CNN reports.
Some other varieties of fungi can feed on other pollutants such as oil, toxic chemicals like sarin nerve gas, TNT, and radioactive waste, Sky News reports.
Beyond these pollutant-eating species, fungi are also vital to ecosystems across the globe and, recently, their essential services to the environment have been receiving more attention. Approximately 90% of living plant species depend on fungi to access nutrients through their roots. Orchids for example, need fungi to survive, according to Kew. Humans eat 350 species of fungi in the form of edible mushrooms.
At the same time, some fungi species pose significant threats to ecosystems, with the ability to infect plants and animals.
With their powerful life-giving and destructive capacities, fungi are inarguably remarkable. Yet scientists still have much more to learn about them.
More than 90% of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world remain unknown to scientists BBC reports. Currently, only 56 fungi species have had their conservation status globally evaluated — whereas the statuses of 25,452 plants and 68,054 animals have been recorded.
"We ignore fungi at our peril," says Prof Willis. "This is a kingdom we have to start to take seriously, especially with climate change and all the other challenges that we're being faced with," Professor Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew, told BBC.
"They're really weird organisms with the most bizarre life cycle. And yet when you understand their role in the Earth's ecosystem, you realise that they underpin life on Earth," she said.
Fungi are a reminder of the necessity of protecting biodiversity. Climate change caused by human activity is not only putting birds and mammals at risk — it could be endangering less visible species whose essential ecological functions are not yet even known.