This amazing finding could have huge implications for future waste disposal.
Plastics have long been thought of as unbiodegradable materials — but scientists may have just found a creature that can eat it.
Mealworms are little brown creatures that wriggle around in nasty places eating things we’d rather not mention — and they may have a hugely beneficial use for humanity if a new study holds true, according to a CNN report.
Scientists have published studies in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that indicate that the mealworm can actually live off Styrofoam and other types of plastics that humanity has long struggled to figure out how to dispose of.
That’s because the mealworm has microorganisms in its tiny gut that allow it to biodegrade polyethylene, which is a common form of plastic.
It’s a huge finding that could have massive implications for how we dispose of plastics. Wei-Min Wu, a Stanford University engineer who worked on the project, even went so far as to call the findings “revolutionary” in an interview with CNN. Professor Jun Yang and doctorate student Yu Yang of Beihang University also contributed to the study.
Wu said it was one of the biggest findings in environmental science in the last decade, and that their findings could solve the problem of plastic pollution, which is beginning to plague the planet after decades of popular use of polyethylene products.
Scientists studied 100 mealworms, and found that they were able to eat 34 to 39 milligrams of Styrofoam each day, which comes out to the weight of about a pill, according to the report.
But what about the mealworms? Actually, even with this diet, they were just as healthy as mealworms that were munching on bran, the study found.
The mealworms were able to convert the plastic into carbon dioxide and other biodegradable waste, which is safe for soil and crops.
The implications are obvious: perhaps huge masses of mealworms could be dispatched into landfills of plastic, where they would go to town on tons of plastic, breaking them down and turning them into something that can safely returned to the Earth — no more plastic rings around the necks of sea turtles. Or perhaps mankind could simply harness the power of the bacteria inside the mealworm to figure out a new way to degrade plastic.
Mealworms are actually not the first to be able to consume plastic — but they are the first to produce biodegradable waste, which is why this discovery is so important. Cockroaches can also consume plastic, but their waste hasn’t shown biodegradation.
It’s the mealworm’s gut that makes it perfect for this job. When given antibiotics, the mealworms couldn’t degrade the plastic, showing just how essential the bacteria it has is in this biodegredation process.
Scientists hope if they can further understand how the gut of a mealworm works, they can create their own ways of breaking down plastic waste.
So what is a mealworm anyway? It’s actually the larvae form for the darkling beetle, which are very common and found throughout the world, where they live in many environments mainly as scavengers. Mealworms are commonly found in pet stores, where they are used as food for larger pets, such as lizards.
The next step is for scientists to study if these microorganisms within the mealworm can break down a different plastic: polypropylene, which is used in car parts and microbeads, the latter of which has become a growing problem worldwide.
The United States pumps out 33 million tons of plastic each and every year, and only 10 percent of it is recycled, so this finding truly could be a game-changer — although it won’t replace recycling, Wu said according to the report.