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Styrofoam-munching superworms could hold key to plastic upcycling

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Scientists at Australia's University of Queensland have now discovered Zophobas morio darkling beetles -- whose larvae are known as 'superworms' -- are eager to dine on stryofoam, and their gut enzymes could hold the key to higher recycling rates
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Packing material, disposable cutlery, CD cases: Polystyrene is among the most common forms of plastic, but recycling it isn’t easy and the vast majority ends up in landfills or finds its way to the oceans where it threatens marine life.

Scientists at Australia’s University of Queensland have now discovered that superworms — the larvae of Zophobas morio darkling beetles — are eager to dine on the substance, and their gut enzymes could hold the key to higher recycling rates.

Chris Rinke, who led a study that was published in the journal Microbial Genomics on Thursday, told AFP previous reports had shown that tiny waxworms and mealworms (which are also beetle larvae) had a good track record when it came to eating plastic, “so we hypothesized that the much larger superworms can eat even more.”

Superworms grow up to two inches (five centimeters) and are bred as a food source for reptiles and birds, or even for humans in countries such as Thailand and Mexico.

Rinke and his team fed superworms different diets over a three week period, with some given polystyrene foam, commonly known as styrofoam, some bran, and others not fed at all.

“We confirmed that superworms can survive on a sole polystyrene diet, and even gain a small amount of weight — compared to a starvation control group — which suggests that the worms can gain energy from eating polystyrene,” he said.

Although the polystyrene-reared superworms completed their life cycle, becoming pupae and then fully developed adult beetles, tests revealed a loss of microbial diversity in their guts and potential pathogens. 

These findings suggested that while the bugs can survive on polystyrene, it is not a nutritious diet and impacts their health.

Next, the team used a technique called metagenomics to analyze the microbial gut community and find which gene-encoded enzymes were involved in degrading the plastic.

– Bio-upcycling – 

One way to put the findings to use would be to provide superworms with food waste or agricultural bioproducts to consume alongside polystyrene. 

“This could be a way to improve the health of the worms and to deal with the large amount of food waste in Western countries,” said Rinke.

But while breeding more worms for this purpose is possible, he envisages another route: creating recycling plants that mimic what the larvae do, which is to first shred the plastic in their mouths then digest it through bacterial enzymes.

“Ultimately, we want to take the superworms out of the equation,” he said, and he now plans more research aimed at finding the most efficient enzymes, then enhancing them further through enzyme engineering.

The breakdown products from that reaction could then be fed to other microbes to create high-value compounds, such as bioplastics, in what he hopes would become an economically viable “upcycling” approach.

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US expands safety probe into Tesla Autopilot

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US safety regulators expanded their investigation into Tesla's Autopilot feature and its role in numerous accidents, moving closer to a potential recall
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US regulators expanded a probe into Tesla’s “Autopilot” system, moving the investigation closer to a potential recall of a controversial feature in Elon Musk’s electric vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating whether “Autopilot and associated Tesla systems may exacerbate human factors or behavioral safety risks by undermining the effectiveness of the driver’s supervision,” according to a summary statement.

The agency now considers the probe an “engineering analysis” — which in NHTSA parlance upgrades the status from a “preliminary evaluation” — to determine “whether a safety recall should be initiated or the investigation should be closed.”

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NHTSA opened the probe in August 2021 after identifying 11 crashes involving a first responder vehicle and a Tesla in which Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control was engaged, and five additional cases were later found that fit into this group. 

Additional forensic data on 11 of the incidents showed the drivers took no action to avert a crash between two and five seconds prior to impact, although they had their hands on the steering wheel.

The agency also probed more than 100 crashes not involving an emergency vehicle in which Tesla Autopilot or another driver-assistance system was engaged.

In about half of these cases, evidence suggests the driver was “insufficiently responsive” to driving conditions, NHTSA said.

Looking at a subset of 43 of those crashes that yielded more detailed data, NHTSA determined that in 37, the driver’s hands were on the steering wheel in the last second prior to the collision.

The automaker has defended the safety of the Autopilot feature, and say when used correctly it reduces the chance of an accident.

But NHTSA said, “A driver’s use or misuse of vehicle components … does not necessarily preclude a system defect” particularly “if the driver behavior in question is foreseeable in light of the system’s design.”

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Activists urge Meta to overhaul policies for Iran content

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With the internet heavily censored in Iran, Instagram owned by Meta is now the main platform for communication in the Islamic republic
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Three rights groups on Thursday urged Facebook and Instagram owner Meta to overhaul its policies for Persian-language content on Iran, complaining restrictions had impeded the ability of Iranians to share information during ongoing protests.

London-based freedom of expression group Article 19, global digital rights group Access Now and the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said Meta had to change policies on potentially sensitive content as well as human and automated moderation.

With the internet heavily censored in Iran, Instagram is now the main platform for communication in the Islamic republic as it remains unblocked.

Other social media services such as Telegram, YouTube and Twitter as well as Facebook are all blocked inside Iran.

The groups said Instagram “suffers from a deficit in trust and transparency” among Persian-language users and Meta needed to ensure “its content moderation practices uphold and protect human rights and freedom of expression.”

All these concerns have been raised at a discussion with a Meta content policy manager, they added.

Iran has seen several weeks of protests against its leadership under supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, triggered by price rises.

But activists complain Meta has taken down some content documenting the protests uploaded to Instagram, depriving users of a key resource of what is happening inside the country.

The temporary blocking earlier this year of #IWillLightACandleToo to remember the victims of the shooting down by Iran of an Ukrainian airliner in 2020 also triggered anger.

The statement expressed concern over takedowns of content on Instagram containing the protest chant “Death to Khamenei” or similar slogans against the Iranian leadership.

Meta previously issued a temporary exception for such chants in July 2021 and has also now granted exemptions related to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Calling for consistency from Meta, the organisations expressed concern “this lack of nuance… causes problematic takedowns of newsworthy protest posts or posts that could help directly or indirectly corroborate human rights abuses.”

The groups also called for “more transparency” on automated processes, where media banks are used for automatic takedowns based on certain phrases, images or audio.

Following allegations in a report by BBC Persian that Iranian officials tried to bribe Persian-language moderators for Meta at a Germany-based content moderation contractor, concerns were also raised “about the oversight of human moderation processes”, they said.

Meta at the time denied ever having ties to the Iranian government and said moderators review a randomized selection of content to check if it violates rules “removing any room for subjectivity”.

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Xbox expands cloud gaming service to Samsung smart TVs

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Lovers of videogame 'Fortnite' will be able to play it free using an Xbox cloud gaming app being built into 2022 model Samsung smart TVs.
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Microsoft on Thursday announced that the ability to play Xbox games will be built into Samsung smart televisions in its latest cloud gaming move.

Microsoft is considered the streaming video game heavyweight with its Xbox Game Pass service and large community of players who use its consoles and desktop computers.

And while the US tech titan makes Xbox video game consoles, it has been leading a shift to letting people play titles on internet-linked devices of their choosing with titles hosted in the cloud.

“We’re on a quest to bring the joy and community of gaming to everyone on the planet, and bringing the Xbox app to smart TVs is another step in making our vision a reality,” Microsoft Gaming chief Phil Spencer said in a post.

Microsoft had already made some Xbox games available for play on Samsung Galaxy smartphones.

An Xbox application will become part of a gaming hub on 2022 model Samsung smart televisions in 27 countries at the end of this month, the South Korean consumer electronics giant said.

Players will need to wirelessly connect videogame controllers to televisions using Bluetooth.

The more than 100 titles available for streaming at the Xbox Game Pass subscription service will include Halo Infinite, Hades and Forza Horizon 5, according to the companies.

Hit videogame “Fortnite” will be available to play free, said Ashley McKissick, a corporate vice president at Microsoft.

“We created Xbox Game Pass and continue expanding Cloud Gaming to new devices so that we can open up the ways people can play across the devices they already own: PC, console, mobile, tablet devices, and now Smart TVs,” McKissick said.

Amazon early this  year launched its Luna video game streaming service for the general public in the United States, aiming to expand its multi-pronged empire into the booming gaming industry.

Luna allows players to access games directly online with no need for a console as part of the cloud gaming technology that is seen as a future direction of the industry.

Luna takes on Microsoft and PlayStation-maker Sony as well as Stadia fielded by Google.

Microsoft catapulted itself into the big league in one of the world’s most lucrative markets early this year by announcing a $69 billion deal to take over video game maker Activision Blizzard — the biggest acquisition in the sector’s history.

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