- Tiffany Turnbull
- BBC – Sydney
Plastic-eating worms may be a revolutionary solution to waste recycling, researchers say.
Researchers in Australia discovered that caterpillars called zophobas moreau, also known as superworms, can feed on polystyrene.
The researchers believe that these larvae, which later turn into beetles, can digest the plastic with the enzymes they secrete.
One of the researchers involved in the study said that this discovery could be a landmark development in the field of recycling.
Dr Chris Rinkel added: “Superworms are mini-recyclers. They tear up polystyrene with their mouths, then feed on it and pass it on to the bacteria in their gut.”
The team of researchers, at the University of Queensland, Australia, fed three separate groups of worms using 3 different diets, for 3 consecutive weeks. And they discovered that the group fed on polystyrene gained weight.
The research team found enzymes in the intestines of the superworms that have the ability to break down polystyrene and styrene, two compounds essential in the manufacture of transport containers, and other things such as insulation materials and parts of cars.
However, this study is not likely to lead to massive worm farms to increase recycling plants.
Instead, the researchers hope to isolate the enzyme most effective in digesting plastic components to be manufactured on a large scale and used in recycling plants.
“In this case, the plastic will be shredded by mechanical mechanisms before the said enzyme is used to produce more valuable materials such as bioplastics,” says Dr. Rinkle.
Previous research had found that some beetle larvae can digest polystyrene, but the latest study goes one step further, said Colin Jackson, a researcher at the Australian National University, who was not involved in the study.
“This study goes a long way toward understanding how bacteria and enzymes work in the larval gut at the cellular level,” she says.
“This is very important to understand and use this different type of recycling,” she says.
In other parts of the world, researchers have successfully used bacteria and fungi to break down plastic. But questions remain about its feasibility for widespread use at the commercial level.
Colin says, “The dissemination of the study on a large scale is always a great challenge whose effects are magnified in the field of plastic dismantling, at huge levels, and contribute amazingly to solving the economic crisis represented by the high cost of producing new plastic.”
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