How "super worms" turn polystyrene into healthy food

As scientists documented in a paper published in the journal Microbial Genomics on Thursday, they even gained some weight and managed to metamorphose into beetles most of the time, prompting researchers to check them out. digestive system to find microbes that could break down polystyrene. If scientists can understand the toolkit of these microbes, they can come up with a better way to recycle this tenacious substance, which, if left alone, can persist in the environment for hundreds of years or more.

These are not the first insects to be fed polystyrene in the laboratory. Flourworms are known for their ability to eat the substance that makes up the packaging of hazelnuts, among other plastics, said Christian Rinke, a microbiologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and one of the authors of the new paper, according to the New York Times.

Both flour worms and super worms have been observed to consume polystyrene, and they lose this ability when fed antibiotics. Thus, the researchers concluded that their gut microbiome is probably behind this unusual talent.

Dr. Rinke and his colleagues raised three groups of super worms in the lab. One group ate bran, one ate polystyrene blocks and the third ate nothing.

While bran was obviously much more attractive to super worms, they were willing to try polystyrene as well. In 48 hours, the feces of the polystyrene group changed from light brown to white, and their weight increased very slowly over three weeks.

When it came time for insects to metamorphose into cockroaches, those that ate bran completed the transition successfully in almost 93% of cases; those who died of starvation collected only 10%. Surprisingly, 66.7% of the polystyrene-eating larvae that were given the chance to turn into pupils succeeded. They managed to get enough energy from the notorious indigestible substance to transform.

Polystyrene is definitely a poor diet “, said Dr. Rinke. But “worms can survive – they don’t look sick or anything like that.”

The researchers sequenced all the DNA they were able to extract from the intestines of the larvae. They were less interested in the specific microbes that were present than in the enzymes that were produced while the microbes were working to break down polystyrene.

With more details about the conditions these enzymes need and the precise nature of their abilities, Dr. Rinke hopes that one day an industrial packaging foam recycling process can be designed. Currently, used polystyrene can be turned into certain types of building materials to try not to end up in landfills. However, a much better solution would be to break down its components and then rebuild them into something new, perhaps with the help of microbes that could turn them into new bioplastics.

It would make everything more interesting economically. “ he said. “It would create something sought after “.

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