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Superworms that love to eat plastic can revolutionise recycling

“Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,”

Akanksha Rathor | New Delhi |

A species of worm with an appetite for polystyrene have been found by the Researchers at the Australia University of Queensland that could revolutionise plastic recycling on a mass scale.

Plastic is the worst substance for the environment to do away with. Recycling is the only option we have as disposing of a debiodegradable product is next to impossible without causing harm to the environment.  Eventually, it ends up in huge garbage dumps and landfills for years or finds its way to the oceans where it hurts ocean life.

In the latest study, scientists at the University have discovered that these super worms—the larvae of Zophobas morio darkling beetles—have bacterial gut enzymes. that can recycle plastic at higher rates, and they like to dine on such substances.

Our everyday life cannot be easy without the use of plastic, from our daily vegetable and fruit carry bags to our water bottles, we cant pass a day without it. Therefore we need sustainable material or technology that can replace plastic or superworms like these that can help us get rid of plastic pollution soon.

Chris Rinke and his team from UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences experimented with superworms by feeding them various diets in different groups over a three week period, few were given polystyrene foam, where few were given bran, and others were put on a fast.

The BBC quoted Dr. Rinke, “We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived but even had marginal weight gains, this suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes. Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut.”

The BBC also reported that the research team has found several enzymes in the superworm’s gut. The gut of these worms has the ability to degrade polystyrene and styrene. Both of these materials are used in takeaway containers and other plastic items such as insulation and car parts.

Although the polystyrene-fed super worms completed their life cycle during the research, they became pupae and then fully developed adult beetles. These tests showed that their gut lacked microbial diversity and potential pathogens.

These findings explained that even though the bugs can survive on polystyrene, it is not a nutritious or healthy diet and can impact their health.

Instead, they look forward to finding which enzyme is the most effective so it can be reproduced at scale for recycling.

To find several encoded enzymes with the ability to degrade polystyrene and styrene, the scientists used a technique called metagenomics.

The long-term goal of this study is to engineer enzymes to degrade plastic waste in recycling plants through mechanical shredding, followed by enzymatic biodegradation.

(Inputs from PHYSORG)