Tiny Animal May Solve a Big Pollution Problem

The humble mealworm can live on styrofoam
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 4, 2015 9:05 AM CDT
Tiny Animal May Solve a Big Pollution Problem
Humanity's heroes, ladies and gentlemen.   (Shutterstock)

A bunch of tiny worms may have just solved a problem that's plagued scientists and environmentalists for years: what to do with the 30 million tons of plastics that end up in US landfills annually. Researchers at Stanford University and China's Beihang University fed Styrofoam—long assumed to be non-biodegradable—to 100 mealworms. Not only did the mealworms stay healthy on an all-plastic diet, their excretions were biodegradable and appeared safe to use as manure, Science Alert reports. "The findings are revolutionary," researcher Wei-Min Wu tells CNN. "This is one of the biggest breakthroughs in environmental science in the past 10 years." While other insects have been known to eat plastics, this is the first time an animal has been observed biodegrading it.

The mealworms' secret is the bacteria living in their guts, Science Alert reports. Researchers hope further study could help develop new enzymes for breaking down plastics. "Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem," Wu says in a press release. That's important because the mealworms ate less than 40 milligrams of Styrofoam per day, which would hardly put a dent in even just the 2.5 billion Styrofoam cups Americans throw away every year. Researchers are also hoping to find the marine equivalent of the mealworm since so many plastics end up in the ocean, Science Alert reports. "There's a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places," research supervisor Craig Criddle says in the press release. "This is a shock." (The EPA hugely underestimated how much trash we dump.)

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