Plastic-Eating Superworms Could Stop Earth's Plastic Pollution Problems

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A bunch of small but hungry bugs might hold the key to saving the planet thanks to their uncanny ability to devour polystyrene - the material behind plastic foam. These so-called "superworms" could one day help rid landfills of this waste and thus put a dent in one of the drivers of global warming. The larvae of Zophobas morio, a species of beetle, are commonly known as superworms and contain several gut enzymes that are capable of digesting polystyrene, Australian scientists have found. Polystyrene is a widely used plastic, found in its solid form in everyday items such as containers, lids and disposable cutlery. Polystyrene foam, which is lightweight and consists largely of air, is used in packaging and as an insulation material. For three weeks, researchers at the University of Queensland fed superworms a polystyrene foam commonly used in building insulation. Dr Chris Rinke and his team from UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences fed superworms different diets over a three week period with some given polystyrene foam, some bran and others put on a fasting diet. “We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains,” Dr Rinke said. “This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes.”. The long-term goal is to engineer enzymes to degrade plastic waste in recycling plants through mechanical shredding, followed by enzymatic biodegradation.

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