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19 June


New fungus boosts Korea's development of "plastic-chewing" biotech

Mucors are used as biological material by local industries in fermented foods, like cheese and soybean paste, and in critical enzymes for lipase and protease

Photo: Korea Times

/NOVOSTIVL/ Korean university and national laboratory researchers have discovered a fungus that advances the country's research into plastic-decomposing biotechnology.

Chonnam National University professor Lee Hyang-burm's team and the National Institute of Biological Resources (NIBR) under the Ministry of Environment discovered the mucor last year.

After publishing their findings in the peer-reviewed international scientific journal Phytotaxa in May, the novel fungus was scientifically named "mucor cheongyangensis."

It has the potential to decompose polycarbonate-based microplastics because of its unique strain, according to the NIBR. Polycarbonate is widely used for mechanical parts, electronics and construction materials because of its high density and thermal resistance.

If the potential is confirmed, the mucor could usher in new biotechnology to grind down the rising amount of plastic waste globally in an environmentally harmless way.

"There have been very few known mucor genus strains in Korea," You Young-hyun, a NIBR researcher, who was part of the cheongyangensis discovery team, told The Korea Times. "Including cheongyangensis, the country now has 13 mucor genuses that are registered as national assets."

To confirm cheongyangensis' polycarbonate decomposing ability, You said discussions are under way with Lee on choosing which polymers to test this year.

"Some mucors and other fungi species outside Korea have been tested positive to possess such ability depending on the type of plastics they chew on, but none of the Korean indigenous species has been confirmed so," You said.

He said he aims to announce the results of his own study of Korean indigenous species with plastic-digesting ability this year.

Cheongyangensis' name derived from the fact the mucor was found on the surface of a spotted lanternfly in Cheongyang, South Chungcheong Province. The NIBR was searching for the country's new indigenous species and training people to discover them when they came across the spotted lanternfly and isolated the mucor.

The latest finding has a particular value for Korea because, while there has not been much known of mucors globally, the country has discovered a new, valuable addition, according to the NIBR.

Despite mucors' diverse breeding habitats ― soils, the atmosphere, water and herbivores' excrement ― the few dedicated researchers worldwide have found just 70 types.

"There are about 1.5 million estimated fungi species on earth and 4,300 in Korea," NIBR chief Bae Yeon-jae said. "We will keep finding new fungi species and extract how they can be applied to local biological industries."

The NIBR said that following the cheongyangensis discovery, it will give more researchers the ability to work in the area because of growing demand.

Mucors are used as biological material by local industries in fermented foods, like cheese and soybean paste, and in critical enzymes for lipase and protease.

Korea has been searching for more indigenous species and recording them as national assets under two international conventions. It joined the first ― the UN Convention of Biological Diversity ― in 1995. In 2017, it became the 98th member of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.