A species of worm that has a taste for polystyrene could hold the key to large-scale plastic recycling, according to researchers at the University of Queensland. The common “superworm” known as Zophobas morio has been found to possess a bacterial enzyme in its gut that allows it to consume polystyrene.
Dr. Chris Rinke and his team from UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences conducted a three-week experiment where they fed the superworms different diets: some were given polystyrene, others bran, and some were fasted. Surprisingly, the superworms fed only polystyrene not only survived but even gained weight, suggesting that they were able to derive energy from the styrofoam with the help of their gut microbes.
Using a technique called metagenomics, the researchers discovered several enzymes encoded in the worms’ genes that can degrade polystyrene and styrene. Their ultimate goal is to develop these enzymes to break down plastic waste in recycling facilities using mechanical processes followed by enzymatic degradation. The resulting degradation products could then be utilized by other microbes to produce valuable compounds such as bioplastics. This bio-upcycling approach aims to encourage plastic waste recycling and reduce landfill.
To further investigate the potential of these gut bacteria in degrading polystyrene, the researchers plan to cultivate more bacteria in the lab. This will allow them to explore how this process can be scaled up and applied in recycling plants.
The team is optimistic about the prospects of biodegrading plastic waste and is committed to advancing the science to make this vision a reality.