Ecology Evolution Intelligent Design

Beetle larvae (“superworms”) can survive on waste plastic

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Zophobas morio larva - top (aka).jpg
Zophobas By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

And do we have a job for them!:

As we find ourselves in the midst a plastic pollution crisis, scientists have tested feeding so-called superworms, the larvae of Zophobas atratus, Styrofoam, a type of polystyrene. Not only were the worms able to eat the material as their sole diet, but the researchers found that their gut microbiota degraded the polystyrene and converted the complex substance into carbon dioxide, according to findings published March 15 in Science of the Total Environment.

The research builds on previous studies that found wax worms and mealworms were also able to eat plastic.

“It’s really interesting now that we’re seeing multiple small insects that can eat and degrade polystyrene, as well as a few other types of plastics like polyethylene,”says Anja Malawi Brandon, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University who was not involved in the study. “This is interesting because it’s starting to paint a picture about what evolutionarily is allowing this to happen. A lot of these insects, such as superworms or mealworms . . . developed over time to be scavengers and eat and break down all sorts of materials that they found, including wood-based material,” which is difficult to degrade.

Nayanah Siva, “Beetle Larvae Can Survive on Polystyrene Alone” at The Scientist

Recent evolution? maybe. Doesn’t sound as though much evolution is needed, actually. Later in the article, it is suggested that the required enzymes may have existed for some time (that is, the plastic is what’s new).

Paper: Y. Yang et al., “Biodegradation and mineralization of polystyrene by plastic-eating superworms Zophobas atratus,” Science of The Total Environment, 708:135233, 2020. (paywall)

Busy little things, aren’t they?:

One Reply to “Beetle larvae (“superworms”) can survive on waste plastic

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    Sounds like a situation where shopping for enzymes, recently observed in bacteria, could explain things. “I’ve got all this plastic here, and it smells like it should be edible, but I’m not satisfied when I eat it. Let’s pick up some new gut microbes and see what happens.”

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