Researchers have discovered that the common mealworm has an incredible trait - the ability to completely digest plastic and Styrofoam.
One of the biggest environmental issues our planet faces is that of plastic. We use it for nearly everything, and once it breaks down into its monomer components, it is believed to remain in that state forever. According to a report from CNN, however, this may not actually be the case.
Scientists have discovered that mealworms, tiny grub-like insects, can survive by eating Styrofoam and certain types of plastics. Researchers from Beihang University and Stanford University discovered a wide range of microbes in the mealworms’ digestive tracts that can break down polyethylene, one of the most commonly used forms of plastic. The studies were published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by professor Jun Yang, his doctorate student Yu Yang, and engineer We-Min Wu.
According to Wu, the findings have the potential to revolutionize the way the world deals with waste. It is one of the biggest breakthroughs in the field of environmental management in the past 10 years.
The scientists examined 100 different mealworms that ate roughly 40 milligrams of Styrofoam each day. This is roughly the amount of a normal sized pill capsule, and was enough to keep the mealworms sufficiently fed throughout the course of the study. There were no measurable differences in the health between the mealworms eating Styrofoam and those that ate a bran-based diet.
The secret to the mealworms’ ability to eat Styrofoam and plastic lies in the bacteria that live in their guts. They convert plastics into carbon dioxide and biodegradable waste, in addition to incorporating some of the mass back into their own bodies. The waste was clean enough to use as fertilizer on most plants and crops, and showed no signs of toxicity.
To test just how important the bacteria were in digesting Styrofoam and plastic, the researchers gave mealworms a course of antibiotics before feeding them their synthetic meal. When the bacteria in the gut was eliminated, so was the ability to digest plastic.
Scientists want to use this property to help break down the plastic waste that plagues our waterways, forests, and open land. But they are not ready to unleash swarms of hungry mealworms into waste centers and let them have at it. They want to understand the secrets of the microbes inside of the mealworms to come up with a method for destroying plastic and Styrofoam waste in a more controlled manner.
Mealworms are the larval stage of the darkling beetle, which can be found all across North America, and even in some pet shops. The scientists also examined other species to see if they held the same ability, and found that waxworms, or the larval stage of Indian mealmoths were capable of digesting the plastic used to produce trash bags.
For a long time, mealworms were considered to be pests. The larva has a knack for getting into stored grain and completely ravaging supplies. Scientists believe they originated in the region surrounding the Mediterranean, but human trade patterns have brought them to most corners of the world. Evidence of mealworms can be traced back to the Bronze Age in Turkey, but there is no mention of the insects from Ancient Egyptian records.