Trash talk

Watch: Superworms snacking on styrofoam could solve our trash problem

Simply delicious!

University of Queensland

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The superworm larvae Zophobas morio might be best known for its popularity as food for pet reptiles and spiders.

But it also has a superpower that could help tackle the world’s monumental plastic-waste problem.

University of Queensland

University of Queensland

Previous studies have documented the ability of both superworms and mealworms to digest extruded polystyrene foam (styrofoam) and plastic.

How do their bodies manage to compost plastic? And how much trash can they eat?

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New research published this week in the journal Microbial Genomics investigates the gut microbiomes of superworms. It compares how a diet of polystyrene foam affects’ worms’ insides as opposed to other food.

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Researchers from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia put superworms on one of the following diets for 3 weeks:

-Bran

-Polystyrene foam

-No food (a fasting diet)

Over 95 percent of the insects survived the 3-week period. That means Z. morio larvae are highly adaptable to different feeding conditions.

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University of Queensland

The foam-eating superworms actually gained a little bit of weight, indicating their bodies are able to synthesize polystyrene into energy, the study shows.

Here’s polystyrene foam inside a superworm’s gut.

University of Queensland

An all-foam diet depleted the larvae’s microbiome diversity, the study found, potentially leading to poorer health outcomes than those eating bran.

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But superworms eating a mixed diet of plastic foam and bran could enable them to both breakdown trash and thrive over the long-term.

“Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut.”

Chris Rinke, study co-author, in a statement.

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The researchers plan to run future lab tests of the worm’s stomach enzymes to determine how they break down plastics.

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University of Queensland

These larvae could one day help compost heaps of waste in landfills and recycling centers.