Ok, so if anybody here actually has any training in chemistry or biology, this may be interesting to you. I took the liberty of actually skimming the article. The research group claims that the polyurethane is degraded completely into the urethane monomers. Their evidence is that in the control IR spectrum there is a massive band at 1735 inverse cm, which corresponds to the ester linkage between each monomer. After 6 days of treatment, they took another IR and found that the band disappears almost completely. That's pretty convincing to me, though I feel that they should have tried to repolymerize the lysate back into polyurethane. They might have done so; I only skimmed the article so I don't claim to be familiar with everything they did.
For anyone not familiar with chemistry, here is a picture of the reaction that makes polyurethane:
Notice that one of the reactants has a N=C=O at the end, and the other has an OH. Now notice that in the polyurethane product, the H from the OH is missing, and instead the two pieces are connected at N-C=O,O. That C=O,O-C structure (carbon double bonded to one oxygen, and single bonded to another oxygen, which itself is bonded to another carbon) is called an ester, and it absorbs infrared light at a very specific frequency. When they take the IR spectrum of polyurethane, they see the ester absorption. When they let the fungus eat it, the ester absorption disappears, suggesting that the reaction is reversed.
What this means, assuming I'm understanding correctly, is that the fungus leaves you with the precursors of the reaction. These could probably be salvaged and recycled to make new polyurethane products, which is pretty exciting. On the other hand, I don't see them mass producing the fungus and releasing it into the wild because the precursors themselves can be dangerous, even though polyurethane itself isn't. For example, the N=C=O precursor is called an isocyanate, and one such chemical killed thousands of Indians in the Bhopal Disaster
. They were using it as a pesticide, and I don't think methylisocyanate is used for polyurethane. Furthermore, other isocyanates seem to have pretty low toxicity. Nonetheless, I think that the more likely use for this fungus, if it proves to be efficient, is in a controlled recycling environment. I can easily see a two-reactor system, where one reactor grows the fungus while another mixes the mature fungus with the plastic. After degradation, the components would be separated (so they don't repolymerize) and then autoclaved (to kill the fungus). Profit for whichever company comes up with such a system.
Whatever they decide to do with this fungus, they better keep it away from my condoms Edited by Danja - 2/5/12 at 7:51pm