Scientists report that mealworms can biodegrade Styrofoam and other types of plastic in their gut. The findings could potentially lead to new methods to tackle the growing problem of plastic pollution, according to researchers. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: Listen closely…that's the sound of mealworms saving the planet. It turns out the insects are able to naturally biodegrade Styrofoam that would otherwise sit in a landfill for more than a million years. Researchers from Beijing and California have found that tackling the ever growing problem of plastic pollution may be as easy as feeding worms. SOUNDBITE (English) WEI-MIN WU, ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Our study found that actually mealworms eat Styrofoam and they digest Styrofoam in their gut." The researchers found that mealworms can safely eat Styrofoam and other types of plastic while deriving energy from the process. One experiment compared the health of a group of worms that ate foam to a group that ate bran and found no difference. The other discovery was how fast the worms were able to break down materials that up until were thought impossible to biodegrade. SOUNDBITE (English) WEI-MIN WU, PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "The process was very fast. In less than 24 hours it became CO2. " The researchers found that an enzyme secreted by the microbes in the worms gut act like a sledgehammer breaking down a wall. SOUNDBITE (English) CRAIG CRIDDLE, PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "I think the secreted enzymes are really interesting those are the tools that actually break the wall down into little pieces." The researchers now plan to study these worms further to better understand how they work, as well as search for other insects that may have plastic-eating superpowers. The hope is to begin tackling the mounting problem of plastic pollution before it's too late. SOUNDBITE (English) CRAIG CRIDDLE, PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "It's an issue because we are running out of landfill space for one thing, especially in dense urban environments. Also the clutter that results, particularly in the ocean everyone hears about that, but all around the world." In the United States alone, 33 million tons of plastic is thrown away every year. Hopefully soon, scientists, aided by the mighty mealworm, may start coming up with ways to deal with it.