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Plastic-eating worms may offer solution to mounting waste problem

01 October 2015

An ongoing study by Stanford engineers, in collaboration with researchers in China, shows that common mealworms can safely biodegrade various types of plastic.

Mealworms munch on Styrofoam - a hopeful sign of a solution to plastics pollution (photo: Yu Yang)

The mealworm - the larvae form of the darkling beetle - can subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene, according to two companion studies co-authored by Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford. Microorganisms in the worms' guts biodegrade the plastic in the process – a surprising and hopeful finding.

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.

"There's a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places," said Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who supervises plastics research by Wu and others at Stanford. "Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock."

In the lab, 100 mealworms ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam – about the weight of a small pill  – per day. The worms converted about half of the Styrofoam into carbon dioxide, as they would with any food source.

Within 24 hours, they excreted the bulk of the remaining plastic as biodegraded fragments that look similar to tiny rabbit droppings. Mealworms fed a steady diet of Styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet, Wu said, and their waste appeared to be safe to use as soil for crops.

Researchers, including Wu, have shown in earlier research that waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths, have microorganisms in their guts that can biodegrade polyethylene. The new research on mealworms is significant, however, because Styrofoam was thought to have been non-biodegradable and more problematic for the environment.

Another area of research could involve searching for a marine equivalent of the mealworm to digest plastics, Criddle said. Plastic waste is a particular concern in the ocean, where it fouls habitat and kills countless seabirds, fish, turtles and other marine life.

More research is needed, however, to understand conditions favourable to plastic degradation and the enzymes that break down polymers. This, in turn, could help scientists engineer more powerful enzymes for plastic degradation, and guide manufacturers in the design of polymers that do not accumulate in the environment or in food chains.


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