Scientists discover ‘superworms’ can eat plastic waste

Scientists from the University of Queensland have found a certain species of worm can eat polystyrene, offering a potential solution to the plastic problem.

The Zophobas morio has been deemed a ‘superworm’ by researchers, who discovered bacterial enzymes in the worm’s gut allows it to digest polystyrene.

During the study, led by Dr Chris Rinke and his team, the superworms were put on different diets over a three-week period, with some given polystyrene foam, some given bran and others put on a fasting diet.

‘We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains,’ Dr Rinke said. ‘This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes.’

Researchers also used the metagenomics technique to uncover several encoded enzymes with the ability to degrade polystyrene and styrene.

In the long term, they plan to engineer enzymes to degrade plastic waste in recycling plants through mechanical shredding, followed by enzymatic biodegradation.

‘Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,’ explained Dr Rinke. ‘The breakdown products from this reaction can then be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics.’

Scientists hope this discovery will incentivise plastic waste recycling and reduce landfill, as the team aim to further investigate the gut bacteria’s ability to degrade polystyrene.

‘We can then look into how we can upscale this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant,’ co-author of the research, PhD candidate Jiarui Sun said.

In related news, engineers and scientists at The University of Texas in Austin have developed an enzyme variant which can break down plastics within a few hours or days time. 

Photo by University of Queensland 


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