Plastic-eating mealworms could be the solution to cleaning the planet from plastic waste, shows new research.
Researchers show that the mealworm can live on a plastic diet. The larvae form of the darkling beetle can eat styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene show two companion studies co-authored by Standford's Wei-Min Wu.
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"Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem," Wu said.
Wu's research shows that the first evidence that bacteria digest plastic inside an animal's gut.
"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."
The study shows that 100 mealworms ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam. This is 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.
There is the big problem of plastic floating in our oceans. The researchers plan to find a mealworm equivalent that lives in the oceans. This could help solve the gigantic plastic problem in the oceans. There is another project that tries to filter out the small plastic pieces.
Co-authors of the papers, "Biodegradation and Mineralization of Polystyrene by Plastic-Eating Mealworms. 1. Chemical and Physical Characterization and Isotopic Tests" and "Biodegradation and Mineralization of Polystyrene by Plastic-Eating Mealworms. 2. Role of Gut Microorganisms," include Yu Yang, Jun Yang, Lei Jian, Yiling Song and Longcheng Gao of Beihang University, and Jiao Zhao and Ruifu Yang of BGI-Shenzhen.
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The papers have been published in Environmental Science and Technology.