Scientists find gut bacteria in superworms that breaks down plastic

Polystyrene is a type of plastic that’s used to make a variety of ubiquitous products like packaging containers, disposable cups, and insulating materials.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that when thrown in landfills or littered in the environment, the plastic takes several hundred years to completely break down. Enter the superworm, a mealworm-like beetle larva that could help speed up this process.

Typically sold in pet stores as feed for reptiles, fish, and birds, it turns out that superworms aren’t the pickiest eaters themselves. Thanks to a special strain of bacteria that lives in its gut, the worm is actually able to degrade the plastic it eats. And it does so in a relatively short amount of time.

In fact, when placing 50 superworms in a chamber with polystyrene as their only carbon source, researchers found that after 21 days, the worms had consumed about 70 percent of the plastic.

The researchers then isolated a strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria from the gut of the worms and showed that it 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 produce it, could someday be used to help break down waste polystyrene, the researchers say.

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