More miraculous microbes?

GTC-SG-150930rAs opposed to the usual situation when I'm passing along links (where they've sat around in my browser's tab bar until I got around to whipping up a post), this time I just got wind of this a day or so back ... and not only is it quite exciting news, it's also something of a follow-up from the previous post on bacteria that's being coaxed into producing fuel.

In this case, researchers have discovered an insect (a type of mealworm) that is able to EAT STYROFOAM. Now, in the world of non-biodegradable stuff, Styrofoam is one of the "big baddies", even allegorically so ... making this news something of a "wow" moment.

I first saw this in a NBC News feature that was posted over on Facebook. Their story says:

Research from Stanford shows that darkling beetle larvae, commonly called mealworms, will happily eat a diet of polystyrene (better known by its trade name, styrofoam), providing a possible method for disposing of this notoriously durable and pervasive plastic waste.

{Researchers} raised a hundred mealworms from birth strictly on styrofoam, which the creatures can digest thanks to a type of bacteria in their gut. Each worm ate about a few dozen milligrams every day, converting about half to carbon dioxide and leaving half behind as non-toxic waste.

Amazingly, the worms seem to suffer no ill effects from eating plastic all day — they were as healthy as a control group that ate bran. The team is making sure, however, by watching for issues that could be delayed, only appear after multiple generations or after being consumed by yet another creature.

Also noted in the story was that the larva of another insect, the Indian mealmoth, can degrade polyethylene, another problematic plastic ... which suggests that we might be coming up on new ways to address some of the more persistent pollutants out there.

As this feature was mainly focused on an "amusing" video (hey, it's a TV thing), I went digging into some of the provided links for more details. If you want the full-on "science" version, there's the abstract of the Stanford team's research on the American Chemical Society site, which is very brief (and technical ... and copyrighted), so, to cut to the chase:

The analysis of fecula egested from Styrofoam-feeding larvae ... substantiated that {breakdown} of long-chain PS molecules and {conversion to other stuff} occurred in the larval gut.

Yeah, if you're interested in how that all happened in a vastly more multi-syllabic format, do click the link!

There is also a release from Stanford, which goes into some (less technical) detail on the research, which, aside from the basics on this study, has a half dozen links going off to other related material. Here's a bit from this piece:

Consider the plastic foam cup. Every year, Americans throw away 2.5 billion of them. ... Enter the mighty mealworm. The tiny worm, which is the larvae form of the darkling beetle, can subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene ... Understanding how bacteria within mealworms carry out this feat could potentially enable new options for safe management of plastic waste.

Obviously, the actual larvae are unlikely to be the solution to this waste, but the microbes in their guts, which allow for these critters to successfully digest the Styrofoam (and other plastics), may eventually be incorporated into systems that would be able to break down discarded materials before they end up out in the environment (despite the lyrics linked to in the second paragraph up top).



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