The Garbage crisis has been an alarming threat to our environment with warnings that the escalating rate of global waste will be 70 percent higher than present levels by 2050 if preventive actions aren’t initiated.
Our world potentially produces 400 million tons of plastic annually. Moreover, the plastics are stuffing the landfills and adversely impacting our natural environment. Plastic waste has become prevalent to such an extent that its particles are encountered in our air, food, and blood. Furthermore, plastic particles have significantly contaminated several habitats especially, the ocean and wildlife.
According to scientific research, plastic may take millennia to biodegrade. However, recently scientists from different regions have been trying to find a natural method to eradicate or at least minimize the potential crisis. This collaborative research involved locating micro-organisms that can digest plastic, equivalent to the process of biodegradation. They have since discovered “superworms” that can survive and grow by consuming polystyrene, familiarly known as styrofoam. This study was published in the journal Microbial Genomics.
The named “Superworm” is a colloquial identity for larval stages of the darkling beetle. In addition, the researchers identified natural enzymes that can be utilized to recycle styrofoam.
In an email, Chris Rinke, a senior lecturer at the Australian Center for Ecogenomics (ACE) at the University of Queensland and the study’s principal author, stated, “Insect larvae have a strong track record of destroying and digesting plastics. Other scientists have mentioned that waxworms and ordinary mealworms can consume plastic, so we reasoned that if these relatively small larvae can do it, the huge superworms (up to 5.5 cm long) could be even more productive.”
He further said, “It came out that superworms had a strong hunger for polystyrene. When we started our studies, we didn’t know if superworms could thrive on plastic, but we had great expectations.”
Rinke and his colleagues arrived at this result by dividing 171 superworms into three categories, each with a distinct diet: one group ate primarily polystyrene, another ate bran, and the third were not fed. According to the study, incidents of cannibalism amongst fasting superworms “lead to our modified experimental setup keeping the hungry comparison group creatures in seclusion, whilst individuals in the other two groups were kept together throughout the feeding trial.”
Superworms are tough little organisms, with over 95% of each group surviving their three-week diets. The bran-fed worms acquired the most weight, but the polystyrene-fed larvae were also somewhat heavier and more active than the starving worms, indicating that they were able to obtain nutrients from the plastic waste—albeit at a cost to their health.
“We now have a catalog of all the bacterial enzymes transcribed in the superworm stomach, and we aim to look into the enzymes that degrade polystyrene,” Rinke added. “Over the next few years, we’ll profile them in more depth to identify the most efficient enzymes, which may subsequently be further enhanced via enzyme engineering.”
To conclude, Rinkie anticipates finding economical and practical methods to recycle plastic. This contribution can tremendously assist in reducing the global waste crisis.