superworms that are like ‘mini recycling plants’


A species of worm that can break down plastic by eating it? It sounds too good to be true, but a team of researchers from the University of Queensland’s School in Australia has found exactly that. The scientists from UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences have discovered that the common Zophobas morio ‘superworm’ can eat through polystyrene thanks to a bacterial enzyme in its gut. Their findings offer new insights into plastic biodegradation and could help tackle one of the most urgent environmental issues of our time—plastic pollution. 


Led by Dr Chris Rinke, the team’s research was carried out over three weeks. During this period they fed the superworms different diets, with some given polystyrene foam, some bran and others put on a fasting diet.


‘We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains,’ Dr Rinke said.‘This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes.’

polystyrene eating worms could help tackle plastic waste, say scientists
images courtesy of the University of Queensland



Using metagenomics, the scientists were able to identify several encoded enzymes in the worms’ gut with the ability to degrade polystyrene and styrene. The long-term goal is to engineer these same enzymes, which could degrade plastic waste in recycling plants through mechanical shredding, followed by enzymatic biodegradation.


‘Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,’ Dr Rinke said.‘The breakdown products from this reaction can then be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics.’

polystyrene eating worms could help tackle plastic waste, say scientists



The next step is to grow the gut bacteria in the lab and further test its ability to degrade polystyrene. Co-author of the research, PhD candidate Jiarui Sun, explains, ‘We can then look into how we can upscale this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant.’


‘Our team is very excited to push the science to make it happen,’ added Dr Rinke.


The research has been published in a paper in online journal Microbial Genomics.