A Worm That Eats Plastic, a University of Queensland Study

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A worm that eats plastic. This is a discovery that could be a game changer for preserving the environment from the pollution of a material that we have abused in recent decades. Our plastic habit has gotten so bad that it has ended up everywhere. In the seas, below the soil, in the fish, we eat, and even now we are finding microplastics inside of us. 

The larvae of the Zophobas Morio, which is certainly not cute, can eat and digest polystyrene- the main polymer used to make plastic, normally takes decades to break down naturally, however, the worm can break it down in just a few days.

Scientists at the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences of the University of Queensland, Australia, started the research in 2017.

The small larvae were fed different foods, from wheat to cereals. In the experiment, the researchers divided the worms into 3 groups.

To the first, they gave wheat, to the second they gave polystyrene, and to the third nothing to eat. The results were published in the scientific journal Microbial Genomics. 

The results were that the worm in contact with the polystyrene has grown even more than the others. Proving that the worm can take energy from polystyrene, thanks to the microbes that are inside them.

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Researchers have found that these small animals have enzymes that can “degrade polystyrene and styrene”.

The larvae of the Zophobas Morio

The Worm That Eats Plastic, How to Use the Discovery?

The discovery is exceptional and new studies will now start to understand how to exploit it. It is impossible to think of feeding all the plastic to millions of larvae. It is necessary, instead, to understand what is the process of degradation of polystyrene. Isolate substances that allow rapid decomposition and use the system to get rid of a problem that poses a serious risk to the health of the Planet.

The “super worm” has been proposed, in several nutritional studies, as an alternative food, both for breeding and for the human diet for the high content of proteins and fats.

But for some time he has also been known for his “superpower” because, as we said, he eats plastic. To be precise, he seems to be greedy about polystyrene. First to notice, a few years ago, was a group of Filipino high school students. Since then, the ability of the larvae of Zophobas Morio, its scientific name, to feed on polystyrene, has become a matter of study. 


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The Team

Chris Rinke and researchers from the Australian University’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences have put this talent to the test. The life cycle of the larvae of Zophobas Morio, like all larvae, predicts that at some point they form a cocoon, become pupae, and resurface as an adult individual. In their case, a black beetle. This happens if they remain isolated. But if raised in large groups, larvae remain and continue to eat.

From Food to Plastic, Bacteria Will Save Us

According to the results, presented in a paper published in the journal Microbial Genomics, “The super worms that fed on polystyrene not only survived but also took a bit of weight – says the team coordinator – this means that worms can draw energy from polystyrene, more likely with the help of microbes inside them”.

From Enzymes to Plants

And that’s where you go to investigate. ” The researchers used a technique called metagenomics to find different enzymes encoded with the ability to degrade polystyrene and styrene”, reads the press release of the study. Although polystyrene, from recent studies, seems to degrade in “just” a hundred years in sunlight, it can do the same in a few days. And if the “super worms” are, in Rinke’s words, like “small recycling plants, chopping polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding them to bacteria in their bellies,” you have to create something similar, but bigger.

Instead of filling giant tanks with millions of super worms that open their jaws waiting for a cascade of white polystyrene (fascinating idea but impractical), we think rather imitate their operation. Chopping the material and then feeding it to the enzymes replicated thanks to the study of Zophobas Morio. Then grow intestinal bacteria in the laboratory and further test their ability to degrade polystyrene and “increase this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant,” said Jiarui Sun, Ph.D. student and second study signature. And what remains at the bottom of this process? According to Rinke “the degradation products of this reaction can be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics”.


An Aid from Insects

Zophobas Morio is just one of the invertebrates that promise to help us, if not to solve, at least to mitigate the problem of the billions of tons of plastic that every year are produced and dispersed in the environment around the world. The Tenebrio Molitor, for example, also has these abilities. In 2017 an Italian biologist (and beekeeper) Federica Bertocchini, from the Spanish Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, discovered the caterpillar that eats plastic, in this case, polyethylene. It is the larva of the Galleria mellonella, called the “wax moth”.

While all over the world, research institutes and companies are studying enzymes derived from insects and microorganisms found in compost and landfills, which have just the “superpower” of degrading plastic.

The first question researchers asked themselves was: how can these larvae eat plastic? ” They’re animals that eat beeswax. And the wax is a rich complex of different molecules, but it contains a bond similar to what supports the robust molecular structure of polyethylene: a chain of carbon atoms that repeats itself” explains biologists. ” So, from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense for the worm to be able to feed on plastic”. The precise metabolic mechanism will be the subject of a future study. ” For now with our experiments, we have understood that the degradation of the plastic does not happen only for the simple chewing action – and therefore mechanical – of the worm, but for a chemical process“. From a more thorough chemical analysis, it will be possible to discover the enzyme or anti-plastic bacterium hidden in the digestive system of the larva.

So, we don’t know if this could be the turning point for the future of our planet. 

But, and it is not hard to believe, after all the harm that humans have done, it is natural that, once again, nature is going to save us.

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