Science

Styrofoam-munching superworms could be the key to plastic recycling

Styrofoam-munching superworms could be the key to plastic recycling
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Scientists from Australia’s University of Queensland have now discovered that Zophobas morio beetles – whose larvae are known as ‘super worms’ – are eager to eat Styrofoam, and their gut enzymes may hold the key a higher recycling rate.

Packaging material, disposable cutlery, CD cases: polystyrene is one of the most common forms of plastic, but recycling it is not easy and the vast majority ends up in landfills or ends up in the oceans where it threatens marine life.

Scientists from Australia’s University of Queensland have now found that the superworms – the larvae of the Zophobas morio beetle – are eager to eat stuff, and their gut enzymes may hold the key to a higher recycling rate.

Chris Rinke, who led a study published in the journal Microbial genomics Thursday, told AFP that previous reports had shown tiny wax and mealworms (which are also beetle larvae) had a good history of plastic consumption, “so we issued the hypothesis that much larger supervers can eat even more”.

Superworms grow up to two inches (five centimeters) and are bred as a food source for reptiles and birds, or even humans in countries like Thailand and Mexico.

Rinke and his team fed supervers different diets over a three-week period, given polystyrene foam, commonly known as styrofoam, bran, and others not fed at all.

“We confirmed that super worms can survive on a single polystyrene diet, and even gain some weight – compared to a starvation control group – suggesting that worms can gain energy by eating polystyrene. “, did he declare.

Although the supervers raised in polystyrene had completed their life cycle, becoming pupae and then fully grown adult beetles, testing revealed a loss of microbial diversity in their guts and potential pathogens.

These results suggest that although insects can survive on polystyrene, it is not a nutritious diet and impacts their health.

Next, the team used a technique called metagenomics to analyze the gut microbial community and find which gene-encoded enzymes were involved in plastic breakdown.

This document from the University of Queensland received on June 9, 2022 shows a

This document from the University of Queensland received on June 9, 2022 shows a “superver” of Zophobas morio

Bio-upcycling

One way to use the results would be to supply supervers with food waste or agricultural bioproducts to consume with polystyrene.

“This could be a way to improve worm health and deal with the large amount of food waste in Western countries,” Rinke said.

But if it’s possible to breed more worms for this purpose, he’s considering another route: creating recycling plants that mimic what the larvae do, which is to first shred the plastic in their mouth and then digest it using bacterial enzymes.

“Ultimately, we want to eliminate supervers from the equation,” he said, and he now plans more research aimed at finding the most effective enzymes and then further improving them through engineering. enzymatic.

The breakdown products of this reaction could then be passed on to other microbes to create high-value compounds, such as bioplastics, in what he hopes will become an economically viable “recycling” approach.


Supervers digest plastic, with help from their bacterial sidekicks


More information:
Jiarui Sun et al, Insights into plastic biodegradation: community composition and functional capacities of the superver (Zophobas morio) microbiome in polystyrene feeding trials, Microbial genomics (2022). DOI: 10.1099/mgen.0.000842

© 2022 AFP

Quote: Polystyrene-munching superworms may hold the key to plastic recycling (2022, June 9) Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-superworms-capable-munching-plastic.html

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