Harnessing Worm Gut Bacteria to Combat Plastic Pollution

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A team of scientists from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore has made a groundbreaking discovery in the fight against plastic pollution. They have isolated a specific bacteria found in the gut of Zophobas atratus worms, commonly known as “superworms,” which has the ability to break down plastics. This finding offers a potential solution to the global plastic pollution problem that has been plaguing our planet for years.

Previous studies have shown that these superworms can survive on a diet of plastic due to the presence of bacteria in their gut that can break down common types of plastics. However, the practicality of using these worms to dissolve plastics has been limited by their slow feeding rate and the tedious maintenance required.

The scientists at NTU have found a way to overcome these challenges by isolating the worm’s gut bacteria and directly using them to break down plastics. This eliminates the need for large-scale worm breeding, which would be necessary if we were to rely on worms alone to process our plastic waste.

“A single worm can only consume about a couple of milligrams of plastic in its lifetime, so imagine the number of worms that would be needed if we were to rely on them to process our plastic waste. Our method eliminates this need by removing the worm from the equation. We focus on boosting the useful microbes in the worm gut and building an artificial ‘worm gut’ that can efficiently break down plastics,” explains NTU Associate Professor Cao Bin, principal investigator at Singapore Center for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (Scelse).

To test the effectiveness of the worm gut bacteria in breaking down plastics, the NTU scientists conducted an experiment. They fed three groups of superworms with different plastic diets: high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene, for over 30 days. The results were remarkable.

The gut microbiomes from the plastic-fed worms showed a significant increase in their capacity to degrade plastics compared to worms fed with oatmeal. This breakthrough demonstrates the potential of harnessing the power of these bacteria to tackle plastic pollution on a larger scale.

“Our study represents the first reported successful attempt to develop plastic-associated bacterial communities from gut microbiomes of plastic-fed worms. Through exposing the gut microbiomes to specific conditions, we were able to boost the abundance of plastic-degrading bacteria present in our artificial ‘worm gut,’ suggesting that our method is stable and replicable at scale,” says Dr. Liu Yinan, a research fellow at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Scelse, and the first author of the study.

While this discovery is an important step forward, the scientists at NTU acknowledge that there is still much to learn. The next step is to understand how the gut bacteria of these superworms break down plastics at a molecular level. By unraveling this mechanism, scientists can further engineer plastic-degrading bacterial communities in the future.

This breakthrough in plastic degradation offers hope in the fight against plastic pollution. With further research and development, the use of worm gut bacteria could revolutionize waste management systems and contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable future.

It is important to note that while this discovery is promising, it is not a standalone solution to the plastic pollution problem. Efforts to reduce plastic consumption, improve recycling infrastructure, and develop alternative materials are still crucial in addressing the root causes of plastic pollution. Nonetheless, the potential of worm gut bacteria to break down plastics provides an innovative approach that could complement these existing efforts and make a significant impact on reducing plastic waste.

Source: The Manila Times

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