Scientists Discover Superworms Can Munch Through Polystyrene

A new study by a team of scientists from Australia shows that certain superworms could transform how plastic waste is recycled and, thus, help save the planet.

Superworms Munching Through Polystyrene

Superworms Munching Through Polystyrene. Image Credit: University of Queensland

Large quantities of plastic waste are generated globally and only a tiny fraction is recycled. A type of plastic known as polystyrene is one of those that are particularly hard to deal with. The bulk of it is deposited in landfills or makes its way into the world’s oceans.

Read Also: Study Shows Plastic Pollution Rising, Threatens All Marine Species

In research just published in Microbial Genomics, scientists discovered that some superworms are keen to munch through this plastic. They found that enzymes in the gut of these organisms could hold the key to more effective plastic recycling.

These superworms were compared to “mini recycling plants” and so could help with mass-scale plastic recycling. Using their mouths, they shred polystyrene and pass it on to bacteria in their gut.

The study was led by Dr. Chris Rinke of the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland (UQ).

Plastic-munching superworms

Superworms are the larvae of Zophobas Morio darkling beetles. They look somewhat like bigger mealworms.

Scientists say these superworms grow up to five centimeters or two inches. They are available in pet shops in some places as food for birds and reptiles. Also, in countries like Mexico and Thailand, the larvae constitute a source of food for the people.

Reports had it that smaller beetle larvae, waxworms, and mealworms, have an impressive ability as regards plastic consumption, Rinke told AFP. This made researchers in this study theorize that the bigger superworms would be able to munch even more plastic.

Read Also: The Discovery of Possible Harmful Substances in Plastic Toys

Aid for plastic recycling

Rinke’s team fed these larger beetle larvae distinct diets over three weeks. Some superworms had polystyrene foam (Styrofoam), some got bran, and others were not given anything at all.

Researchers observed that the superworms given Styrofoam were able to complete their life cycle. They transformed into pupae and then became fully mature beetles. This showed that the larvae could get energy from plastic, presumably with the aid of microbes in their gut.

The research team employed a technique known as metagenomics to study the microbes in the worms’ guts. This helped the researchers to identify encoded enzymes that play a part in degrading polystyrene and styrene.

While superworms placed on polystyrene foam grew into mature beetles, scientists observed a disruption in their gut microbial community and the presence of possible pathogens. They suggest a way around this could be to mix agricultural bioproducts or food waste with polystyrene.

“This could be a way to improve the health of the worms and to deal with the large amount of food waste in Western countries,” Rinke said.

Read Also: Microplastics Present in the Blood of Healthy Human Subjects Study Shows

An alternative approach to using superworms for plastic recycling is the creation of recycling plants that replicate what the organisms do. Researchers revealed plans to identify the most-competent enzymes involved in the process, to improve their biodegradation capacity through enzyme engineering.

Products from reactions can be given to other microbes to create bioplastics and other high-value compounds. Rinke hoped this would be a more inexpensive yet viable method for “upcycling.”

References

Insights into plastic biodegradation: community composition and functional capabilities of the superworm (Zophobas morio) microbiome in styrofoam feeding trials

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