SYDNEY: Australian scientists found that superworms have a surprisingly healthy appetite for polystyrene, which the researchers hope could eventually be used to recycle plastic in an environmentally safe way.
In a new study published in the Microbial Genomics journal and revealed on Friday, the team from the University of Queensland (UQ) School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences explained how the species zophobas morio — commonly known as superworms or giant mealworms — can thrive by snacking on styrofoam.
Dr. Chris Rinke said they made their finding after giving the omnivorous worms different diets over a three-week period, with some offered styrofoam (also known as expanded polystyrene foam or EPS), some bran and others placed on a fasting diet.
The worms, which originated in tropical regions of Central and South America, are used to devouring nearly everything they can find including rotten fruit and vegetables or decaying animal remains.
“We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived but even had marginal weight gains,” Rinke said, adding that their ability to consume the plastic was due to their having a particular bacterial enzyme in their gut.
“Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,” Rinke said.
Speaking to Xinhua on Friday, the microbiologist said the next goal would be to replicate the worm enzyme in the laboratory which could then be used in combination with microbes to create “high-value compounds” such as bioplastics, which are made from biological substances rather than petroleum.
Rinke said that ultimately it would be preferable if governments banned the use of environmentally unfriendly polystyrenes, which contain cancer-causing chemicals, but in the meantime, there were many opportunities for the biodegradation of plastic waste in the recycling process.
“Our team is very excited to push the science to make it happen,” he said.