By closely monitoring the conditions inside their mealworm enclosures, the scientists calculated that 48% of the carbon in the Styrofoam was released from the worms as carbon dioxide. Only a tiny sliver of it was incorporated into the worms’ bodies. About 49% of it was excreted as mealworm poop, containing broken down chunks of polymer. This took 16 days, and the worms were as healthy as those eating other foods. That’s a whole lot better than multiple centuries.
The team speculated that the microbial environment inside the worms was the key to their ability to break down the tough polymers. Cultures of 13 bacterial strains living in the gut of mealworms were grown on a polystyrene film. One strain in particular was able to degrade the medium, a strain of Exiguobacterium (see above). However, it took a few months to see any real progress. Being in a mealworm’s gut seems to make the process much more efficient. It’s possible that improved strains of Exiguobacterium could be developed that make mealworms even more efficient at breaking down polystyrene. So, don’t just throw away that Styrofoam cup, sprinkle some mealworms on it.