Superworm Larvae Can Digest Styrofoam

(p. D2) The plump, glossy larvae of the darkling beetle, nicknamed “superworms” perhaps because of their size, are usually content to munch on wheat bran. But a number of the two-inch-long critters recently found themselves dining on much stranger fare in the service of science: polystyrene, the long-lived plastic packing material known sometimes by the brand name Styrofoam.

What’s more, the larvae that managed to choke down this peculiar feedstock did not, as you might expect, expire. As scientists documented in a paper published on Thursday [June 16, 2022] in the journal Microbial Genomics, they even gained a bit of weight and were able to metamorphose into beetles most of the time, prompting the researchers to check their digestive systems for microbes that could break down the polystyrene. If scientists can understand such microbes’ tool kits, they can devise a better way to recycle this tenacious substance, which, if left on its own, may persist in the environment for hundreds of years or more.

For the full story, see:

Veronique Greenwood. “Don’t Try This at Home: Styrofoam as a Snack Food? Superworms Just Pack It In.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 21, 2022): D2.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 10, 2022, and has the title “How Superworms Make Styrofoam Into a Healthy Meal.” The version quoted above is the online version that includes several words that are absent from the print version.)

The paper mentioned above is:

Sun, Jiarui, Apoorva Prabhu, Samuel T. N. Aroney, and Christian Rinke. “Insights into Plastic Biodegradation: Community Composition and Functional Capabilities of the Superworm (Zophobas Morio) Microbiome in Styrofoam Feeding Trials.” Microbial Genomics 8, no. 6 (2022).

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