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Styrofoam-chewable supervers key to higher plastic recycling rate: study

A study by scientists from the University of Queensland, Australia, found that superworms, the larvae of the mealworm Zophobas Morio, are eager to consume polystyrene, which is one of the most common forms of plastic. The study found that the worms’ gut enzymes could potentially hold the key to a higher plastic recycling rate, reports AFP news agency.

Superworms typically tend to cluster up to five centimeters, and in countries like Thailand and Mexico, these worms are bred as a food source for reptiles, birds, or even humans.

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The study was published Thursday in the journal Microbial Genomics. Chris Rinke, who led the study, told AFP that the worms had impressive performance when it came to feeding on plastic.

The team of scientists also set out to find which enzymes encoded by worm genes were involved in plastic breakdown and to analyze the microbial community in the gut using a technique called metagenomics.

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During the study, Rinke and his team fed supervers over a three-week period with different diets. Some worms received polystyrene foam, also known as styrofoam, a few received sound, and some received nothing.

“We confirmed that superworms can survive on a single polystyrene diet and even gain some weight compared to a starvation control group, suggesting that worms may gain energy by eating polystyrene,” said Chris Rinke told AFP.

The study results suggest that if the superworms can survive on polystyrene and complete their life cycle as adult beetles, the tests reveal that this could lead to a loss of microbial diversity in their guts and potential pathogens.

Bio-upcycling

The results of the study can be put to good use by providing supervers with food waste or agricultural bioproducts to consume with polystyrene, Rinke told AFP.

“This could be a way to improve worm health and deal with the large amount of food waste in Western countries,” he added.

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While it’s possible to breed more superverses for recycling, Rinke has another plan which is to create recycling factories that can replicate what the larvae do, which is to first shred the plastic in their mouths, then finally digest it through enzymes.

“At the end of the day, we want to eliminate supervers from the equation,” AFP quoted Rinke as saying. Rinke plans to continue researching the most effective enzymes to further improve them through enzyme engineering.

Scientists envision that the breakdown products of these enhanced enzymes can then be passed on to other microbes, which can potentially create high-value compounds, such as bioplastics, which they hope would become an economically viable approach to recycling. .

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Post expires at 10:59am on Monday June 20th, 2022