/ Science / Mealworms could eat mountains of polystyrene waste

Mealworms could eat mountains of polystyrene waste

Andrea on October 9, 2015 - 12:58 pm in Science


Polystyrene plastic materials like Styrofoam have provided the world with inexpensive and lightweight packaging and insulation, but they’re also remarkably resilient materials. That’s great when you’re using it, but when it’s thrown away, polystyrene can sit in a landfill unchanged for centuries. Scientists have been looking for better ways to dispose of it, and perhaps they’ve found it in the humble mealworm.Studies published by an international team of researchers have explored the ability of mealworms to eat and break down polystyrene. The worms, larvae of the darkling beetle, can eat just about anything with carbon in it. That includes polystyrene, which is a hydrocarbon polymer. To figure out how effective mealworms were at breaking down these materials, the researchers sealed 40 of them in with 6g blocks of Styrofoam to see what happened.

bacteria mealworms

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.

Source: Science – Geek.com


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