• Todd Petrella

Mealworms? A Solution to Plastic?

Back during the spring, I wrote a post proposing a potential solution to plastic pollution. That article was about a project I worked on during the spring semester about mushrooms and their ability to grow by breaking down and consuming plastic. Unfortunately, it’s not a project that I kept up with, but I do think it has a lot of potential. This time around, I will be highlighting a group of researchers who have kept up with their project to rid the world of plastic pollution, and they are doing it using mealworms!

Mealworms eating through polystyrene
Mealworms eating through polystyrene

How exactly are mealworms helping rid the world of plastic? In 2015, researchers at Stanford University discovered that mealworms can survive by consuming polystyrene, one of the main chemicals in Styrofoam. This is due to microorganisms within the gut of the mealworm that are capable of breaking down the plastic molecules. Keep this in mind, as this will be important later. After ingesting the plastic, the Stanford researchers examined the excrement of the worms. It turns out that half of the plastic was converted into carbon dioxide, which is typical with any food source, and the other half resulted in biodegraded droppings that resemble those of rabbits (Jordan, 2015). The researchers even examined the mealworms to be as healthy as those who consumed a normal diet, and also that the plastic-derived excrement appeared safe to use as soil and fertilizer.

That research at Stanford has continued for some time, and I believe that it is still ongoing, at the time of this writing. Now, I want to switch gears and talk about the mealworm project happening here at our very own University of Delaware. Remember the gut microorganisms I mentioned earlier? Researchers Kevin Solomon and Mark Blennar, members of UD’s chemical and biomolecular engineering faculty have been studying the gut microbes in particular, observing how they react to different plastic mixes. The idea of the project is to find specific microbes that degrade plastics and “pull them out” to create microbial communities that can be applied elsewhere. They have observed them consuming clean plastics, dirty plastics, and even mixes of clean and dirty plastics. The type of microbes in the gut change depending on what types of plastics were consumed (check out our previous post on the 7 different types of plastics), which creates some challenges when trying to identify which microbes to select for the communities.


Huge pile of ocean plastic pollution
Maybe one day mealworms will help clean up messes like this

Solomon and Blenner are employing a technique called phenoprofiling to help select the microbes best suited to breaking down plastic, and then, using another technique called fluorescence activated self-sorting, will pull the microbes out for further analysis, likening the process to a “bait and hook” scenario. For more information about this process, check out the full article here: Untapped potential | UDaily (udel.edu)

This is super exciting! In a time where it seems like there is nothing but pessimism about the wellbeing of our environment, it makes me happy to see that there are solutions to our ongoing crises. With just a little bit more time, effort, and research, I believe that we will start to see multiple solutions to how to deal with the massive amounts of plastic pollution that we have, and we will eventually turn this downward trend into an upward one. I wish Solomon and Blenner the best in their endeavors, and I hope to see more information about this soon. In the meantime, thank you for stopping by and reading!

Sources:

Mealworms may help fight our plastic waste problem | CNN

Can plastic-eating mealworms help solve our pollution crisis? - CNN

Untapped potential | UDaily (udel.edu)


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