Scientists found bacteria in mealworms’ larvae that degrades non-biodegradable material.

Mealworm beetles' (Tenebrio molitor) larvae contain bacteria capable of degrading polystyrene material.  Image by Wikimedia Commons - Sanja565658.
Mealworm beetles’ (Tenebrio molitor) larvae contain bacteria capable of degrading polystyrene material. Image by Wikimedia Commons – Sanja565658.

Sustainable solutions are constantly being developed to maintain, or even improve, environmental conditions; in fact, the world has now reached a point where the search for environment-friendly conditions is crucial for the survival of all species – but we are still many steps away from overcoming many threats.

Examples of popular materials which assist with the contamination of soil and rivers throughout the years by not degrading are plastic bags and polystyrene. You most likely noticed the overwhelmingly negative response towards the £0.05 charge for plastic bags at the supermarket, which is by far a very significant step, no matter the wrong impact it may have caused. The idea is to reuse the bags in order to decrease their production, and therefore assist  with cleaning the environment.

Unlike plastic bags, polystyrene is free of charge and comes with most fragile items bought from any sector, simply because it’s lightweight and protects nicely; the material is, however, even more harmful than its cousin. For many years, scientists have focused on developing ways to degrade both these materials, but without much success. Nonetheless, they’ve prevailed on their search and are now closer to creating a vector to help degrade at least one of those: the polystyrene.

Scientists from the University of Beiham, Pequim, along with colleagues from Stanford University, California, have found a potential bacteria living in mealworm beetles’ larvae which could degrade the material into organic compounds. The research was based on 100 larvae being given 34 to 39mg of polystyrene for a month from the moment they were born.  According to the reporthalf of the compound given was converted to carbon dioxide and organic residue in only 24 hours, and the larvae remained healthy throughout the process. The next step will be to further analyse and record how the process works, and in the future produce synthetic enzymes capable of reproducing such deed.

If, or better yet when, they are successful, we could be closer to solving another piece of the environmental race towards a greener future. The expectation towards environmental science increases every second, and such findings give hope that the best way to save the planet is responsibly exploring its own resources.  

Yang, Y., Yang, J., Wu, W., Zhao, J., Song, Y., Gao, L., Yang, R., Jiang, L. (2015) Biodegradation and Mineralization of Polystyrene by Plastic-Eating Mealworms: Part 1. Chemical and Physical Characterization and Isotopic Tests (2015) Environmental Science and Technology. 49(20), pp. 12080-12086.

By Marcela Usmari