Could this worm help end plastic pollution?

Could this worm help end plastic pollution?

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Plastic is cheap and highly durable, which has made it an extremely popular packaging product. But it’s also leading to an environmental threat: plastic pollution.

According to the United Nations’ Environmental Program, plastics are so common they are becoming a part of the Earth’s fossil record, it’s used as a marker for our current geological era. Because there is so much plastic in our waters, scientists have created a new marine habitat called the plastisphere.

Not all hope is lost. Researchers in Australia are studying a type of worm that can break down certain types of plastic products.

The bug at hand? Zophobas Morio or the “superworm.” After hatching from eggs, darkling beetles spend about 10 weeks as larvae, commonly known as mealworms.

Mealworms are just that — worms that make up meals for a wide variety of animals. Not only are they a popular choice in the wild, but mealworms are often raised to be used as pet food for birds and fish.

But what makes these worms so special is their diet. Their stomachs contain a bacterial enzyme that can break down polystyrene — commonly known as Styrofoam.

This month, researchers from the University of Queensland published a study that they believe proves this worm and its gut enzymes could be key to reducing plastic pollution on a mass scale.

“Superworms are like mini recycling plants,” Dr. Chris Rinkethe project’s lead researcher, said in a news release. “(They shred) the polystyrene with their mouths and then feed it to the bacteria in their gut.”

Through an experiment, the researchers were able to identify several enzymes that are key to breaking down the plastics. They also found that a diet consisting only of polystyrene foam didn’t have much impact on the worm’s life cycle.

“We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived but even had marginal weight gains,” Rinke said. “This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes.”

Ph.D. candidate Jiarui Sun, who co-authored the study, said the plan is to grow the gut bacteria in a lab and continue testing for ways to break down polystyrene.

“We can then look into how we can upscale this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant,” Sun said in a release.

Rinke said he hopes the team’s research helps incentivize bio-upcycling and turns the tide on plastic pollution.

“Our team is very excited to push the science to make it happen,” Rinke said.

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