Scientists discovered the fungus – Aspergillus tubingensis – while sifting through a rubbish dump outside the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
It turns out it produces an enzyme which can break down even the most resilient plastics including polyester polyurethane in the space of just a few weeks.
The fungus, which shows up as dark mould on stored fruit and cereals, has traditionally been seem the scourge of the food industry.
However, a report entitled State of the World’s Plants and Fungi compiled by researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre and published by Kew revealed the fungus had evolved in such a way as to destroy polyurethane.
We need to identify those genes that produce the plastic-degrading enzyme and then we can widen the use
Dr Ilia Leitch
Dr Ilia Leitch, an expert in plant and fungal biology at Kew, said: “We need to identify those genes that produce the plastic-degrading enzyme and then we can widen the use.
“They could be put in marine fungi to help clear the plastic in the oceans.”
The problem of what to do with the vast amounts of plastic we use – and discard – annually is an increasing concern of environmentalists the world over.
If the situation to worsen unabated, experts predict landfall sites will contact a staggering 12 billion metric tons of plastic by 2050.
Director of science at Kew Katherine Wills hopes a plastic-eating fungus could be ready for use within five years, such is the interest from multi-national companies.
Their discovery is not the first biological solution to the problem to have been mooted.
In April, British scientists revealed they had accidentally created a mutant enzyme which breaks down plastic drinks bottles.
They stumbled upon their discovery while studying bacterium at a Japanese waste dump which had evolved to eat polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
In the course of their work, they tweaked the enzyme produced by the bug which breaks down the waste and in the course of this, found they had made it better at disposing of PET.
Professor John McGeehan, who led the research, said: “It is a modest improvement – 20 per cent better.
“But it’s incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimised. It gives us scope to make a super-fast plastic-eating enzyme.”
Nor does it stop there. The waxworm, a species of moth caterpillar, is also capable of consume plastic bags made of polyethylene.
Spanish scientist Federica Bertocchini made the startling discovery after removing the waxworks from one of her beehives after in a bid to clear an infestation.
She put them in a plastic bag, and was stunned when she returned to it to find it was full of holes, with them having eaten their way out.
Ms Bertocchini then teamed up with Professor Christopher Howe at Cambridge University’s Department of Biochemistry for an experiment in which 100 waxworms were exposed to a plastic bag from a British supermarket.
Within 40 minutes, holes started to appear and 92mg of plastic were devoured within 12 hours.