by Youth Ocean Advocate Clara L.
Plastics are a growing problem for the ocean as humans continue to produce plastic products — from bags to microbeads — that often end up in the ocean. Recently, scientists have found a potential solution to the problem from an unexpected source — mealworms. Recent discoveries have found that mealworms are capable of digesting polystyrene (commonly known as styrofoam). This process was first discovered by a group of scientists in China who have since been collaborating with engineers at Stanford University to study this process and its implications.
Last month I talked to Anja Brandon-Drevitch, a former Seattle Aquarium youth volunteer. She’s now a senior at Stanford University and working in the lab of professor Dr. Craig Criddle doing research on the plastic-eating mealworms. Anja has been passionate about conservation since her childhood, and became aware of the issue of plastics in the ocean during her time volunteering at Seattle Aquarium.
Anja told me about some of the details of the research and her involvement in it. The group has found that the mealworms break the polystyrene down fully and get nutritional value out of it, just like humans break down foods such as carbohydrates. They also found that the microbiome (an ecosystem of microorganism) in the mealworm’s gut, is responsible for the digestion of the polystyrene. Currently, Anja is working on research to determine if the mealworms can eat and degrade plastics besides polystyrene.
Anja explained that these discoveries could be used to sustainably break down plastics. One possibility is isolating the mealworm’s mircobiome and using it in a bioreactor to break down plastics into carbon dioxide or methane, and then using these products as biofuel. Another idea is feeding plastics to mealworms, and then using the mealworms for agricultural purposes. Though these are just ideas currently, the discoveries are surely promising, and being able to implement a process of breaking down plastics would be a huge step towards keeping plastics out of the ocean.