Superworms can digest plastic thanks to gut microbes
The larvae of a species of beetle native to Central and South America can apparently survive with plastic as their only food source. The larvae's appetite for Styrofoam could be the key to mass plastic recycling.
The researchers from Australia's University of Queensland were able to demonstrate that the larvae of the species Zophobas morio (large black beetle), known as "superworms", are able to digest polystyrene thanks to the microbes in their guts.
The team had previously divided larvae into three groups and observed them for three weeks. One was given nothing to eat, one was given bran and another was put on a diet of polystyrene foam. "What we found was that the superworms that were fed only polystyrene not only survived, but actually gained a small amount of weight," said Chris Rinke, one of the lead authors of the study. They were also more active than the larvae that were not fed anything at all. This suggests that the larvae can get energy from the Styrofoam, "most likely with the help of their gut microbes".
Mini recycling plants
The larvae's appetite for Styrofoam could be "the key to mass plastic recycling," a university statement said. The long-term goal, it said, is to use the microbes as a model to develop enzymes for breaking down plastic waste in recycling plants - through mechanical shredding and subsequent enzymatic biodegradation. "Superworms are like mini-recyclers that crush the Styrofoam with their mouths and then feed it to the bacteria in their gut," Rinke explained.