Superworms have been critical research to help for polystyrene recycling on a mass scale.
A team of researchers at the UQ (University of Queensland) has found that the common Zophobas morio ‘superworm’ can eat via the polystyrene, appreciation to a bacterial enzyme in their gut.
Dr. Chris Rinke and his team from the University of Queensland, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences fed super worms various diets over three weeks, with some given polystyrene foam, some bran, and others put on a fasting diet.
“We discovered the superworms provided a diet of just polystyrene not only endured but even had marginal weight gains,” Dr. Rinke said.
“This indicates the worms can emanate energy from the polystyrene, most probably using their gut microbes.”
The researchers used a method called metagenomics to find several encoded enzymes that can degrade polystyrene and styrene.
The long-term plan is to arrange enzymes to degrade plastic waste in recycling plants via a mechanical shredding process, pursued by enzymatic biodegradation.
“Superworms are just like a mini recycling plant, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,” Dr. Rinke said.
“Other microbes can then utilize the breakdown products from this reaction to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics.”
This bio-upcycling is expected to incentivize plastic waste recycling and reduce landfills.
Co-author of the research, Ph.D. candidate Jiarui Sun, said they aspire to develop the gut bacteria in the lab and additional test its capability to degrade polystyrene.
“We can then glimpse how we can upscale this approach to a level needed for a complete recycling plant,” Ms. Sun said.
Dr. Rinke said there are numerous options for the biodegradation of plastic waste.
“Our unit is keen to push the science to make it happen,” he said.