Yes, these worms thrive on a plastic diet
Scientists hope creatures' unusual appetite could aid massive waste problem.
(A native of England, Matthew Diebel is a veteran journalist who has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)
“Hi, wormie mate, I’ll put some polystyrene on the barbie for you.”
OK, so not on the barbie — because it would melt — but a team at Australia’s University of Queensland (UQ) have found that a variety of beetle larvae called Zophobas morio, also called superworms, will eat polystyrene, leading the researchers to hope they could help with the world’s plastic waste problem.
“We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains,” said Dr. Chris Rinke, a co-author of the study. “This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes.”
The UQ team placed the wormlike creatures on different diets over a three-week period, with some fed bran, another group fed polystyrene only and another group made to starve.
Rinke told Scientific American that the plastic-munching is very loud, adding that before he discards a chewed-through block, he raises it to his ear to check for stragglers. “If the worm is still eating in there,” he says, “you can actually hear it.”
Having established the worms’ unusual appetite, the scientists were then able to identify a set of bacterial enzymes responsible for the digestion of the polystyrene.
There are other potential uses beyond waste management. “Superworms are like mini recycling plants,” said Rinke, “shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut. The breakdown products from this reaction can then be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics.”
Co-author of the study, Jiarui Sun, said the team aims to grow the gut bacteria in the lab and further test its ability to degrade polystyrene.
“We can then look into how we can upscale this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant,” she added.