Plastic waste: beetle larvae can feed on polystyrene – knowledge

At first glance, polystyrene does not seem to be the tastiest food source, let alone the nutrient rich. However, some animals do not despise white plastic. According to a study by a research team from the University of Queensland, published in the journal Microbial genomics has been published, so-called “superworms” can feed on polystyrene. These are larvae Zophobas dyingalso known as the Great Black Beetle.

For the work, a research team led by microbiologist Chris Rink fed three different groups of larvae differently for three weeks. One group received no food, another received wheat bran, and the last group received polystyrene, which is known in its inflated form under the trade name polystyrene.

The results show that polystyrene larvae thrive on food. “We found that the worms fed the polystyrene not only survived, but also gained weight,” says Rinke. According to the research team in the study, this shows that the animals were able to extract energy from the polystyrene, which also shows the physical activity of the worms. For example, in the group of starving worms, it was observed that their movements were slower compared to the other two groups.

Intestinal microbes apparently allow the decomposition of polystyrene

Different diets also affected the metamorphosis of black beetle larvae. Larvae fed wheat bran developed into a beetle from about 93 percent, while starving larvae developed from only 10 percent. In contrast, 66.7 percent of the polystyrene group, according to Rinke, was able to develop in the weevil and thus apparently gather enough energy from polystyrene for this conversion, most likely with the help of their intestinal microbes.

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The mealworms were also fed polystyrene for studies. The worms were found to lose the ability to degrade polystyrene when given antibiotics. From such observations, the researchers conclude that the breakdown of polystyrene is related to microorganisms in the intestines because they are affected by antibiotics.

Using genetic analysis, the team identified enzymes that allow the breakdown of polystyrene in larvae. These enzymes could be the next step in developing the potential for biodegradation of plastics.

Plastics are inherently difficult to degrade and some, such as polystyrene, can last centuries on Earth. Plastics recycling is currently scalable, with only about a tenth of the world’s plastic waste recycled. Biological methods could help break down plastics into their components in large quantities and more sustainably, and produce new materials from decomposition products. Enzymes identified in beetle larvae as well as other organisms could help here. In 2016, for example, a research group from the Kyoto Institute of Technology found a bacterium that can decompose PET plastic.

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