Disposal of garbage (specially plastic) has grown into quite big a problem globally. In this context, finding efficient means to get rid of it is keeping researchers around the world very much busy. A new work, published in two parts in Environmental Science & Technology, led by scientists from Stanford University in the US and Beihang University in China suggests that an answer might be lying in the gut of the humble mealworm.
The humble mealworm’s gut contains bacteria that can potentially biodegrade plastic. Given the current widespread use of plastic, and hence the issue it drags into our world concerning its disposal, the microorganisms might help us curb the negative effects on our environment.
The mealworm is the larva of the darkling beetle. The researchers show that it can feed on Styrofoam and different forms of polystyrene thanks to its gut bacteria. The findings are revolutionary since the materials in question were so far deemed to be non-biodegradable.
“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” says one of the authors, a senior research engineers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, Wei-Min Wu.
The research documents how 100 mealworms consumed from 34 to 39 milligrams of Styrofoam per day, releasing end products carbon dioxide and biodegraded droppings. The plastic diet did not cause any health problems to the animal. Furthermore, their droppings are apparently safe to be used as soil for crops.
Researchers could possibly use these findings to engineer much more powerful enzymes to degrade plastic. The scientists are also searching for a marine equivalent of the mealworm since water pollution caused by plastic is becoming more and more serious.
“There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” said Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, who also participated in the study. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”