Mealworms can safely biodegrade various types of plastic

Stanford and Beihang University researchers have discovered that the common mealworm can biodegrade Styrofoam and other types of polystyrene, thanks to microorganisms in its guts that break down the plastic. This research opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem. 

Image credit: Yu Yang......... Mealworms (larvae of the darkling beetle) munch on Styrofoam, a hopeful sign that solutions to plastics pollution exist. 

Image credit: Yu Yang......... Mealworms (larvae of the darkling beetle) munch on Styrofoam, a hopeful sign that solutions to plastics pollution exist. 

The key is the microorganisms in the worms’ digestive system. These “bugs-within-the-bugs” produce an enzyme that breaks down the foam into organic compounds. What the mealworms don’t digest, they expel as biodegradable substances that return to nature.

Not only can the mealworms biodegrade plastic that we previously thought was non-biodegradable, but the Styrofoam-munching mealworms were as healthy as those that ate a normal diet, and their waste is even safe enough to use as crop soil.

Why it's important: 
33 million tons of plastic are being discarded every year in the U.S. alone, and sadly less than 10 percent gets recycled. Mealworms could take care of a significant chunk of that non-recycled plastic. The researchers will next focus on whether the mealworms can digest other waste like polypropylene, microbeads and bioplastics. 

The papers, published in 'Environmental Science and Technology', are the first to provide detailed evidence of bacterial degradation of plastic in an animal's gut. Understanding how bacteria within mealworms carry out this feat could potentially enable new options for safe management of plastic waste. The researchers now plan to study the foam-degrading gut bacteria more closely and find out whether it’ll eat other environmental menaces. Read More