Mealworms eat their way through Styrofoam, plastic pollution

Researchers at Stanford University have discovered that the common mealworm can safely biodegrade various types of plastic. These plastic-hungry worms could solve the world’s growing waste problem.

The tiny mealworm can subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene thanks to microorganisms in the worm’s gut that can biodegrade plastic, according to two studies co-authored by Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer at Stanford University.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” says Wu.

Understanding how the mealworms’ gut bacteria can biodegrade plastic could potentially enable new options for safe management of plastic waste.

“There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” says Craig Criddle, Wu’s supervising professor. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”

What’s more, mealworms fed a steady diet of Styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet and their waste might even be safe to use as soil for crops, says Wu.

In collaboration with Chinese researchers, the Stanford team now plans to study weather mealworms can biodegrade other forms of plastics including microbeads. The researchers also hope to find the marine equivalent of the mealworm in the hopes of saving seabirds, fish, turtles and other marine life injured and even killed by plastic waste in the ocean.


Rhys A., flickr/Creative Commons

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