These plastic-eating worms could be the solution to pollution.

By Seriously Science | November 5, 2015 6:00 am

20150930lnp3-mealwormsWe all know that plastic is generally terrible for the environment because it doesn’t biodegrade, and just sits in landfills. (Or even worse, gets tangled around some poor animal’s neck!) Fortunately, the lowly mealworm may hold the answer. As these scientists report, the worm Plodia interpunctella contains bacterial strains in its gut that are capable of breaking down polyethylene, the most common form of plastic (found in grocery bags, plastic bottles, and much more). Now if only we could figure out how to host these bacteria in our own guts, and simply eat our food packaging instead of throwing it away…

Evidence of Polyethylene Biodegradation by Bacterial Strains from the Guts of Plastic-Eating Waxworms

“ABSTRACT: Polyethylene (PE) has been considered nonbiodegradable for decades. Although the biodegradation of PE by bacterial cultures has been occasionally described, valid evidence of PE biodegradation has remained limited in the literature. We found that waxworms, or Indian mealmoths (the larvae of Plodia interpunctella), were capable of chewing and eating PE films. Two bacterial strains capable of degrading PE were isolated from this worm’s gut, Enterobacter asburiae YT1 and Bacillus sp. YP1. Over a 28-day incubation period of the two strains on PE films, viable biofilms formed, and the PE films’ hydrophobicity decreased. Obvious damage, including pits and cavities (0.3−0.4 μm in depth), was observed on the surfaces of the PE films using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM). The formation of carbonyl groups was verified using X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and microattenuated total reflectance/Fourier transform infrared (micro-ATR/FTIR) imaging microscope. Suspension cultures of YT1 and YP1 (108 cells/mL) were able to degrade approximately 6.1 ± 0.3% and 10.7 ± 0.2% of the PE films (100 mg), respectively, over a 60-day incubation period. The molecular weights of the residual PE films were lower, and the release of 12 water-soluble daughter products was also detected. The results demonstrated the presence of PE-degrading bacteria in the guts of waxworms and provided promising evidence for the biodegradation of PE in the environment.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: fun with animals
  • OWilson

    If the solution to the diminution of pollution is homeomogenic distribution rather than antidilution, then, thanks to evolution of a species with a suitable constitution, we can have reconstitution, and absolution rather than persecution and restitution from the perps.

    Pardon my elocution :)

  • Uncle Al

    Pictured is polystryene foam. DOI:10.1021/acs.est.5b02661 Gobbler. The PE film was eaten by Exiguobacterium isolated from larval (not worm) guts. Read it before you report on it.

    about half of the polystyrene the mealworms eat is excreted back into the environment in fragments that may not be biodegradable and could carry toxins up the food chain.” The solution requires greater solutions: Enviro-whiner perfect in all ways.

  • darryl

    What’s the mechanism behind the breakdown? If it’s enzymatic, then figure out the enzyme and you’ve really got something.


    • Uncle Al

      1) Hydrocarbon remediation of petroleum spills.

      Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty in 1971 gene-gineered a Pseudomonas putida (US Pat. 4259444) that would metabolize pretty much everything in spilled petroleum. It is being “studied” (possibly in a locked small basement room labeled “High Radiation Area” surrounded by a moat filled with alligators).

  • alqpr

    “We all know that plastic is generally terrible for the environment because it doesn’t biodegrade, and just sits in landfills.”

    But why is having carbon locked up in relatively small known locations (rather than oxidized into the atmosphere and/or distributed widely in micro-particles of unknown toxicity) to be considered as “generally terrible for the environment”?

    • JonFrum

      In this case, ‘we all know’ is being used to shut down discussion, or even consideration of the assertion. Stop and think – what harm comes from a plastic children’s toy sitting twenty feet under the top of a landfill hill? Better still, when was the last time you looked at the slope of a local hill and thought ‘I wonder what’s twenty feet down inside there?’ Foolishness.

      • alqpr

        Thanks for that nice example!

  • Maxwell Lambert

    I would like to see what the by-product of plastic breakdown is. The only thing that troubles me about plastic is when I see it float by me when I’m out surfing. As long as it’s kept away from water supplies, as others have observed, is there really any effect of plastic in land fills? I’d like to see more than just the abstract and perhaps some follow up on the efficacy of PE breakdown.


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