A species of worm capable of eating through plastic waste has been discovered by a team of scientists at the University of Queensland, Australia.

According to the researchers, the common Zophobas morio ‘superworm’ can eat through polystyrene — a synthetic aromatic hydrocarbon polymer derived from the monomer known as styrene — due to a bacterial enzyme present in the worm’s gut.

Source: University of QueenslandSource: University of Queensland

To make this determination, worms in the lab were fed a diet of either bran or polystyrene foam for a period of three weeks, while a third group underwent a fasting regime.

The team determine that the so-called superworms nourished on a diet of only polystyrene thrived, even achieving marginal weight gains — an indicator that the worms derive energy from the polystyrene, likely due to help from their gut microbes.

Using an approach called metagenomics, the scientists found many encoded enzymes with the ability to degrade both polystyrene and styrene, which is a chemical used to produce latex, synthetic rubber and polystyrene resins.

Eventually, the long-term goal of the University of Queensland scientists is to create enzymes capable of degrading plastic waste in recycling plants via mechanical shredding, and, subsequently, enzymatic biodegradation.

The article, Insights into plastic biodegradation: community composition and functional capabilities of the superworm (Zophobas morio) microbiome in Styrofoam feeding trials, appears in the journal Microbial Genomics.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com