Polystyrene-digesting worm could help solve plastic pollution problem
Image credit: Dreamstime
A worm that can consume and break down polystyrene plastic is being examined by scientists as a possible aid in reducing landfill waste.
Resembling giant mealworms, superworms are beetle larvae that are often sold in pet stores as feed for reptiles, fish and birds.
South Korean researchers Jiaojie Li and Dae-Hwan Kim have now linked the ability of these worms to consume polystyrene to a strain of bacteria that lives in the larvae’s gut.
Polystyrene is used in packaging containers, disposable cups and insulating materials, but when thrown in landfills or littered in the environment, the plastic takes several hundred years to completely break down.
On the other hand, mealworms and superworms have been shown to ingest and degrade polystyrene within a few weeks.
The team placed 50 superworms in a chamber with polystyrene as their only carbon source. After 21 days, the worms had consumed around 70 per cent of the plastic.
The researchers then isolated a strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria from the gut of the worms and showed that it that could grow directly on the surface of polystyrene and break it down.
Finally, they identified an enzyme from the bacteria, called serine hydrolase, that appeared to be responsible for most of the biodegradation.
This enzyme, or the bacteria that produces it, could someday be used to help break down waste polystyrene, the researchers say.
In April, Cornell University scientists demonstrated a new polymer that degrades under ultraviolet radiation.
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