Worms could be the answer to one of the troublesome questions when it comes to recycling a commonly-used packing material that often ends up in landfills — Styrofoam.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia say they have discovered that a common superworm called zophobas morio can eat through polystyrene. It’s because of a bacterial enzyme in their gut.
A team from the university’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences fed superworms various diets over a three-week period. Some were given polystyrene. Some got bran and others were put on a fasting diet.
“We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains,” lead researcher Dr. Chris Rinke said. “This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes.”
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So is the plan to let these superworms loose on the world’s Styrofoam? No. The long-term goal, researchers say, is to create an enzyme that can degrade the plastic waste in recycling plants.
That could reduce the amount of waste ending up in the world’s landfills.
“Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,” Rinke said. “The breakdown products from this reaction can then be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics.”
The study is published in Microbial Genomics.
Styrofoam is the trademark name for polystyrene.