Superworms That Eat Plastic Offer Hope For Recycling

Superworms can recycle plastic

Scientists hope that the discovery of an enzyme in the gut of a “superworm” will change the way plastic is recycled.

Researchers say that a type of insect larvae that likes to eat plastic could help change the way people recycle.

Scientists in Australia have found that the Zophobas morio, which is also called a “superworm,” can live on a diet of polystyrene.

Superworms That Eat Plastic Offer Hope For Recycling

They think that an enzyme in the larvae’s gut breaks down the plastic.

One of the study’s authors says that could be important for making recycling better.

Dr. Chris Rinke said, “Superworms are like little recycling plants. They shred polystyrene with their mouths and feed it to the bacteria in their guts.”

Over the course of three weeks, a team from the University of Queensland fed three groups of superworms different foods. The group that ate polystyrene actually got fatter.

The team found that the superworm’s gut has a number of enzymes that can break down polystyrene and styrene. Both are often used in takeout containers and other things, like car parts and insulation.

But it’s not likely that the research will lead to huge worm farms that can also be used as recycling plants.

Instead, they want to find out which enzyme works best so that it can be made in large amounts for recycling.
According to research published in Microbial Genomics, the plastic would then be broken up by hand before being treated with the enzyme.

“Other microbes can then use the waste products of this reaction to make high-value compounds like bioplastics,” Dr. Rinke said.

Researchers have found that the larvae of some kinds of beetles can eat polystyrene.

But this study goes a step further, says Colin Jackson, a researcher at the Australian National University who wasn’t part of the study.

Professor Jackson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “This study goes a long way toward understanding how the bacteria in [the superworms’] gut do this at the molecular level.”

“[That’s] important for translation and using this kind of approach in recycling.”

Other scientists around the world have used bacteria and fungi to break down plastics with success.

  • Fungi and bacteria are getting rid of plastic waste.

But some people wonder if such methods could ever be used in business.

“Scaling up and applying research like this is always hard, but in the case of plastics, the problem is so big and making new plastic is so cheap that it makes it even harder,” Professor Jackson said.

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