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This worm could help solve the world’s garbage crisis

By: Iris Shen

A week and a half ago in Brisbane, Australia, scientists discovered a type of “superworm” that can effectively digest polystyrene, or more commonly known as styrofoam. This discovery of the zophobas morio larvae could possibly lead to the slowing of the escalating garbage crisis around the world.

Data shows that more than 14 million tons of plastic end up in water systems every year, degrading underwater habitats and killing animals; out of 80,000 tons of styrofoam containers made in the US, less than 5,000 tons was recycled.

To conduct a study, a team of researchers in Australia fed a group of superworms three diets. One group was given a “healthy” solution of bran. The second was given polystyrene. The third was given nothing to eat. Ninety percent of the larvae that ate bran became beetles, compared with roughly 66 percent from the group given polystyrene and 10 percent from those who starved.This told researchers that superworms have enzymes in their gut that can effectively digest styrofoam. However, they don’t want to collect superworms just for testing.

“We want to not have gigantic superworm farms,” said Mr. Rinke in an article with The Washington Post’s Pranshu Verma. “Rather, we want to focus on the enzyme.” So the researchers will study the enzymes that allow the superworm to digest styrofoam and search for a way to turn the finding into a commercial product.

Jeremy O’Brien, the director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, said that it remains unclear what kind of organic waste the enzyme process would generate, and he worries it could harm the microorganisms landfills already use to process trash and reduce odors. In The Washington Post article, he added that “a more desirable and cost-effective solution would be to take the styrofoam in landfills and condense them enough so that they can be turned into new plastics.”

In 2015, researchers from Stanford University revealed that mealworms could also survive on plastic. The next year, Japanese scientists found bacteria that could eat plastic bottles. In April, researchers and scientists from the University of Texas created an enzyme which could digest polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic substance found in clothes, liquid and food containers. As the garbage crisis gets worse, it is hopeful that scientists are able to find even more insects and bacteria that can be the answer to this problem.

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