LWL | The Secret of the Superworms

By Abby Calarco

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is an island; but while some islands consist of sand, dirt, grass, and rock, this one consists of plastic, wood, metal and rubber. While other islands are attached to the ocean floor, this one is a floating mass of garbage that looks like an island from afar. Furthermore, while natural islands are disappearing with the rising sea levels as a result of climate change, this mound of floating waste is doing the opposite: it is growing.

These days, there are many different kinds of plastics slowly destroying our ecosystems and environments. Although change in the environment is inevitable, the changes that humans are creating is too much for environments to handle. If nothing is done about this, the world will slowly decay around us until it can’t manage the years of plastic build-up. But there is still hope; scientists, researchers, environmentalists, and concerned everyday people worldwide have come up with groundbreaking solutions to slow the damaging effects of plastic. One of those ways is from the discovery of a unique characteristic possessed by the Galleria Mellonella larvae, commonly called a “Wax worm.” While their name might not sound like that of a Marvel superhero, they could actually hold the key to saving us all. Recently, we’ve discovered that strangely enough, Wax worms are able to digest and process plastic with no issue. Hence the new name they’ve been given, Super worms. But why can they do this? How can they help us? Even though we may not fully understand these small yet mighty creatures, there is one thing that is clear: These Super Worms could save all of us from the very thing we created.

If we want to truly understand the importance of these odd creatures, we first need to know why plastic is so bad for the environment. Or more specifically, why is Polystyrene (PS) in particular so horrendous? PS is composed of several long chain-like strands made up of carbon. Once the PS ends up in some form of a landfill, the chemicals inside of it will leak out and destroy the soil and environment around it. One of the chemicals inside of it is a polymer made from the monomer styrene, which is a liquid hydrocarbon that is commercially manufactured from petroleum.”

This chemical could kill small rodents, mammals, and even birds if ingested via food and/or water. Huge mounds of PS  are often dumped into landfills and left there to “decompose.” Yet according to Joseph A. Davis in an article for The Society of Environmental Journalists, it takes at least 500 years for PS to completely decompose (Davis, 2019) Every year humans have collectively dumped 5 billion pounds of PS, or a little over half a pound per person…on the entire planet. But now that we know why we need the Superworms, we can dive deeper into what they are.

Superworms are small dusty-cream-colored insects that can be found all over the globe. Although they are more common in places like North-America, Turkey, Europe, and Russia. They can be found in or around beehives, usually eating chunks of the beeswax, which is another unusual trait they possess. Hence their older  name, Waxworm. But they don’t stay Wax worms forever; after several days they will begin by transformation into Wax moths. Inside their cocoons, they will begin developing wings and antennas. Depending on how warm their environment is, they could hatch within 10 days.  Despite taking all of that time to transform, they will only live for a few days after they leave their cocoons because they don’t eat or drink. Males will often mate with a female then live for another 13 to 21 days before they die. Unless they are eaten before mating or their final day. Whereas the females will mate with a male, lay eggs, and then live for the next 7 to 12 days. The fact that these creatures only live for this long, but could save us all is almost heartbreaking, but not nearly as heartbreaking as all the plastic covering our earth.

Even though Super worms only stay in their worm-like state for a few weeks, their abilities were still a scientific breakthrough. But how do they do it? Is it an adaptation? Some kind of alien ability from another planet? It’s actually because of a few different types of gut micro bacteria that their bodies can create. Some recently developed studies have  discovered the strains of carbon that are found in both beeswax and plastic can be broken down by the  chemicals inside of the Superworm’s saliva. When they bite into the PS, the chemicals are released and begin to break it down. Once inside the digestive system, the gut microbes Firmicutes, Proteobacteria, Tenericutes, and Actinobacteria will begin to break it down further. Consuming PS actually helps these microbes and keeps them healthy! A study done by a researcher named Christian Rinke states that, Superworms are like mini recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut.” Rinke, a researcher at the University of Queensland and co-author of the paper, goes on to explain, “The breakdown products from this reaction can then be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics” (Turnbull, 2022). It’s strange to think that these alien-like worms could be our last chance to fix everything. Perhaps this is the fresh start we’ve needed.

So that's their story? We release a bunch into the wild, they eat all plastic and the world is saved, right? Well…they can help us, just not by being on every square inch of the planet. You see, there are some who do not like these worms: Beekeepers. It is commonly understood that bees are already endangered and one of the threats, as mentioned previously, are wax worms. Like plastic, beeswax is made of a similar construction of carbon strands. For years, beekeepers have experienced the threat of female wax worms laying their eggs in beehives so the larvae can feed off of the wax.

However, luckily for us, there is a safer option to breaking down these plastics without threatening bees by  just throwing them into the wild. We’ve learned that we could extract the mouth and gut bacteria that give them the power to break down and digest plastic. This is the process told by www.sciencedirect.com: ``After plastic feeding, the worms were dissected to extract the gut microbiomes. The worms were immersed in 75% ethanol solution and rinsed twice with deionized water before being dissected. The guts were drawn out and vigorously vortexed in 0.9 % NaCl solution, filtered through a 10-μm filter (pluriStrainer Mini 10 μm, PluriSelect) to remove worm tissue, and centrifuged at 10000 rpm for 10 min to harvest gut microbial communities.” Now that we are capable of removing the gut bacteria from the worms themselves, we can experiment with it even further. Perhaps we could put the gut microbes in PS itself, that way once it’s thrown away the microbes will dissolve it. Or, we could create some sort of chemical to spray over mounds of PS that causes it to break down quicker. Superworms are still very new so most ideas on how they could help are out of reach at the moment. However, if we can harness their powers, the future could be a lot brighter.

Overall, the unfathomable abilities of the Superworms could be the key to a cleaner, safer world. There is still much to learn about these strange creatures. We can learn so much from the organisms that have come before us. Compared to animals like Dragonflies, Crocodiles, and Sharks, we are the newcomers to this planet. If we can begin to take a step back and take a look at our ancestors, the possibilities could be endless. The fact that something so small, fragile, and slightly disturbing to the eyes, could do something so big and powerful shows that there are many other non-human ways to save the planet.  If Superworms can chew through plastic, think of all of the many discoveries that we could find in the future! For now though, researchers are starting to understand how Superworms are able to digest plastic and are starting to come up with many ideas now they could help us.  

Works Cited

Kleiderly. (2021, February 23). Why is Polyester bad for the environment? — Kleiderly. 

Kleiderly. https://www.kleiderly.com/our-blog/why-is-polyester-bad-for-the-environment#:~:text=Since%20polyester%20is%20made%20of,water%20of%20the%20local%20population.

Leitch, C. (2022, June 15). How superworms can help us recycle plastics. Labroots. https://www.labroots.com/trending/microbiology/22979/superworms-help-recycle-plastics#:~:text=This%20work%20revealed%20microbial%20populations,microbes%20to%20degrade%20plastic%20waste.

Liu, Y., Bairoliya, S., Zaiden, N., & Cao, B. (2024). Establishment of Plastic-associated Microbial Community from Superworm Gut Microbiome. Environment International, 183, 108349. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2023.108349

Davis, Joseph A, Styrofoam Facts — Why you may want to bring your own cup. (2019, April 17). SEJ. https://www.sej.org/publications/backgrounders/styrofoam-facts-why-you-may-want-bring-your-own-cup#:~:text=Once%20in%20the%20landfill%2C%20it,does%20not%20go%20into%20landfills.

Sun J, Prabhu A, Aroney STN, Rinke C. Insights into plastic biodegradation: community composition and functional capabilities of the superworm (Zophobas moriomicrobiome in styrofoam feeding trials. Microb Genom. 2022 Jun;8(6):mgen000842. doi: 10.1099/mgen.0.000842. PMID: 35678705; PMCID: PMC9455710.

Turnbull, B. T. (2022, June 10). Plastic-munching superworms offer hope for recycling. BBC.  

News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-61727942#