Humans have already used the Tenebrionidae beetle larvae, known as the “super worm,” to feed domestic reptiles, but they could soon become consumers on their own after scientists discovered the larvae’s extraordinary ability to digest waste plastic.
Scientists from the University of Queensland in Australia say that these humble larvae from the Zophobas mario species not only have the ability to chew polystyrene, but are further developed by a diet that only contains polystyrene.
The team fed the super worms different diets over a three-week period. Some were given polystyrene foam, others were given bran. Others were also put on a fasting diet.
Dr Chris Rinke, from the university’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said:
We found that super worms fed only polystyrene diet not only survived, but even gained some weight.
This suggests that the worms were able to obtain energy from polystyrene, possibly with the help of gut microbes.
Polystyrene creates enormous amounts of hazardous plastic waste that permeates water sources with chemicals that turn them into microplastics. So if the process can work on an industrial scale, organic digestion led by super-worms could be a valuable tool in reducing human-caused environmental pollution.
“Super worms are like mini-recycling facilities that break down polystyrene with their mouths and then feed the bacteria in their gut with it,” Dr. Rinke said.
The researchers used a technique called metagenomics to find various encoded enzymes that can decompose polystyrene and styrene.
“Other microbes can then use the breakdown products from this reaction to create high-value compounds, such as bioplastics,” Dr. Rinke said.
The team said they hope this bio-upcycling will encourage plastic waste recycling and reduce waste in landfills.
The study’s co-author, doctoral candidate Jiarui Sun, stated that they aimed to test the ability of gut bacteria to replicate in the laboratory and decompose polystyrene.
“We can then explore how we can raise this process to the level required for an entire recycling facility,” Sun said.
Dr. Rinke said there are many opportunities for the biodegradation of plastic waste.
Our team is thrilled to push science to make this happen.
The research was published in the scientific journal Microbial Genomics.