Plastic-Eating Superworms — The Future Of Recycling?

Aug 29, 2022by Olivia - F&F

Polystyrene for dinner? Aussie researchers have discovered a plastic-eating ‘superworm’ that can digest polystyrene! It’s hoped that the enzyme that makes this digestion possible can be used to break down massive quantities of plastic.

Polystyrene Eating SuperwormPolystyrene Eating Superworm

Image: The University of Queensland

These Plastic-Eating Worms Can Digest Polystyrene!

Researchers at the University of Queensland have discovered the common Zophobas morio ‘superworm’ can eat through polystyrene, thanks to a bacterial enzyme in its gut! So, how did the researchers come across this amazing discovery? Well, Dr Chris Rinke and his team fed the superworms three different diets over several weeks.

“We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains. This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes,” Dr Rinke said. 

Using a technique called ‘metagenomics’, the researchers were able to pinpoint the enzymes that were responsible for degrading the polystyrene. These specific enzymes could be the key to unlocking a whole new method of plastic recycling!

Polystyrene Eating SuperwormsPolystyrene Eating Superworms

Image: The University of Queensland

Superworms Likened To A ‘Mini Recycling Plant’

Much like a typical recycling facility, these superworms have the ability to mechanically and chemically break down materials. According to Dr Rinke, “superworms are like mini recycling plants — shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,” he said.

This natural process inspired the researchers to think about the ways in which these enzymes could be used on a larger scale! To replicate this process, we could have recycling facilities that subject plastic materials to mechanical shredding, followed by enzymatic biodegradation. 

“The breakdown products from this reaction can then be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics,” said Dr Rinke.

Plastic RecyclingPlastic Recycling

Image: Shaunl / Canva

When Could We See Superworm-Inspired Recycling Plants?

So, how will this exciting research be used in the future? According to co-author of the research — PhD candidate Jiarui Sun — the team aims to grow the enzymes in a lab to test their plastic-eating abilities on a larger scale. 

“We can then look into how we can upscale this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant,” Ms Sun said. The researchers have applied for a four-year funding grant to explore these plastic-eating enzymes even further. 

“It might take another 2-3 years to further optimise these proteins via enzyme engineering, and then we can incorporate them into the recycling process. So we estimate a 10-year timeframe," says Dr Rinke. Thanks to these amazing little superworms, plastic waste may become a thing of the past!

Who would've thought that worms could be the key to minimising plastic waste? These plastic-eating enzymes could open up a world of possibilities to biodegrade plastic and potentially reduce the size of landfills. Amazing, right?

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