I’m sure that many- if not all- of the people that read this blog would, like me, firmly believe that pollution is an incredibly serious issue which has been dangerously ignored and cast aside by previous generations. This seems to me to be especially true of physical pollution from litter (especially non-biodegradable plastics) – an area of the issue that seems to have been further ignored in favour of dramatic pictures and headlines regarding global warming, and the plight of the (admittedly much more photogenic) polar bears. This makes it all the more heartening to read that, at long last, there is a potentially promising solution to the massive deficit of plastic pollution that has been dumped in landfill sites all over the world- and it comes in pretty much the most unlikely form possible.
The research in question has been undertaken by scientists at Stanford University in the U.S., in collaboration with researchers in China, and has discovered that the unassuming mealworm (the larvae of the darkling beetle) is capable of thriving for at least a month on a diet of pure polystyrene1. 100 mealworms have been proven to dine on between 34 and 39 milligrams of polystyrene a day under lab conditions, to produce just CO2 and a small amount of tiny, biodegradable droppings (a process neatly summed up in an “infographic” created by the research team)1.
Although this is a tiny amount, it is undeniably excellent news- especially considering at present no polystyrene has been in existence long enough to have decomposed naturally2. This breaking down of the polystyrene is possible due to microbial action in the gut of the mealworms (as demonstrated by the fact that the meal worms were unable to digest the polystyrene after being fed a diet containing antibiotics), most likely the YT2 strain of Exiguobacterium– which has since been shown to form “noticeable pits and cavities”3 when left on a piece of polystyrene.
As the research supervisor, Craig Criddle, stated- “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.” In my view, this comfortably sits alongside Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and the discovery of water on Mars as one of the most shockingly great news stories of 2015- but if you feel differently, please feel free to comment (Harriet)!