A New Recycling Hero; The Mealworm Beetle.

Mealworms are the larval stage of the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor, a type of darkling beetle. Many people will know this well recognized insect for its use in the reptile food industry, but this beetle is turning out to be a lot more important then your bearded dragon’s next meal.


Photo; OakleyOriginals (c)

Plastic pollution is turning out to be one the biggest problem the human race has faced. Will millions of tonnes of plastic being poured into the ocean every year. Why am I bringing up plastics when talking about beetles, well this little larvae is the biggest defence for plastic waste. A study published by the Environmental Science and Technology, is the first of its kind to produce in depth evidence into how these larvae are able to eat Styrofoam and other types of polystyrene based plastics, and be perfectly healthy.

That’s right; they are eating un-biodegradable waste, and are fine! These are materials that are classed as non-biodegradable, left to be on earth long after we are. This is great news, with Craig Criddle, a Stanford professor who supervises plastics research stating  ”There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places.’ & ‘Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”

photo credit Mealworms munching on styrofoam. Mealworms are the larvae form of the darkling beetle. Yu Yang  Stanford

photo credit; Yu Yang & Stanford. Mealworms eating Styrofoam.

In the study scientists fed 100 mealworms 34 to 39 mg of Styrofoam a day (this is equivalent size of a small pill). The worms gut, with the assistance of its gut microbes, converted half of the plastic feed into carbon dioxide and the rest was excreted in the form of biodegradable dropping. That’s soil for you and me. The news of finding out that worms are being able to turn mounds of Styrofoam into biodegradable waste asks the question; how about the health of the worms?

It was this that took the scientists most by surprise, will a normal speculation that eating 39mg of plastic a day isn’t very healthy for you. The worms follow up health report stated that the plastic feed mealworms appeared to be just as healthy as those feed on a ‘normal’ diet. It was even stated that their excreted waste seemed to be safe enough to be used as soil for crops, although further testing would need to be done to confirm this.

This is a breakthrough study that’s discovery will revolutionize how we see plastic waste, and give us a way to tackle it. If this research gets the funding it may be able to pinpoint the exact microorganisms responsible for this incredible feat; this can lead to being able to replicate the process, and bio-engineer more efficient and powerful digestive enzymes. Research engineer Wei-Min Wu from Stanford University said: “Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem.”

The U.S.A alone has more then 33 million tones of plastic waste that gets put into landfills each year, with less then 10% of that waste being recycled. This waste is able to pollute local water sources and soil, leading to treats on marine ecosystems if it when carried down rivers. Until now the non-biodegradable label on polystyrene foams , like Styrofoam, meant that it would have taken more then a million years to decompose according to EPA. Now it takes the digestive track of a mealworm.


Photo; Pengo (c)

Future work on these findings are meaning that the team are now working to explore the impacts of introducing Styrofoam eating mealworms into our food chain. This is to see if we can use these animals to end our war on waste and then be able to feed them to animals such as livestock. With this great news on land, work is being done to see if there is a marine equivalent of the mealworm with matching gut bacteria that can help to reduce the waste in the oceans.

From a non-sustainable, non-renewable, polluting material to becoming a food source for an animal that we can base our food industry on, this research has proven that one man’s trash is another’s treat.

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A Behavioral entomologist. I love the little things that are often overlooked.

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