The Ecuadorian rainforest holds many surprises. When I visited it on the way to the Galapagos one of those surprises was a 20-foot anaconda on the banks of a lake where we were swimming. It slithered slowly into the water on one side of the lake as we climbed rather more rapidly into the boat moored near the other side. Which was probably just as well, because the lake was full of piranhas. We had been assured that these particular piranhas only ate the fruit that dropped from the trees overhanging the lake. After we were safely back in the boat, the skipper announced that we could now go fishing. What were the hooks baited with? You’ve guessed it – raw meat.
Now scientists have discovered something else in the Ecuadorian rain forest with interesting gastronomic habits. This particular something is a fungus of the genus Pestalotiopsis – a genus that is often associated with leaf spots and diebacks. But this particular species (Pestalotiopsis microspora) eats polyurethane, and hence may prove useful for biodegradation of the massive amount that is thrown away each year as we dispose of car seats, insulation, old shoes and a host of other consumer goods for which it is used.
I would love to know how the scientists found out about the fungus’s unusual tastes. Did their polyurethane dinghy fall to bits in the fungus-laden water? Did their swimming costumes mysteriously lose their straps? Their paper (you can read it at http://aem.asm.org/content/77/17/6076.full) doesn’t say. You’ll just have to read between the lines. Lucky it wasn’t printed on polyurethane.
IMAGE: The author and friends in an Ecuadorian lake full of piranhas.