Not only are mealworms able to consume various forms of plastic, new research from Stanford shows they can eat Styrofoam containing a common toxic chemical additive and still be safely used as protein-rich feedstock for other animals.
Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions
I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.
Scientists have known for a few years that mealworms have a palate for plastics. That Styrofoam may as well be a steak. Microorganisms in the worms' gut are happy too. They partially break down – or biodegrade -- the plastic. (Sound effect: burp)
So, what's the issue? In a word, Hexabromocyclododecane. Yikes! It's a common toxic additive to make Styrofoam more flame retardant. (Sound effect: flame burst) Millions of tons of Hexa -- let's just call it "HBCD," are added to Styrofoam and other plastics each year. Thing is, mealworms are sometimes used as a feed source for animals, so could HBCD be passed up the food chain?
Research from Stanford University says -- (Sound effect: ding, ding, ding –game show) nope. Their new study is the first to look at where harmful additives go once the worms ingest them.
The surprising take: essentially all the HBCD was excreted within two days. (Sound effect: cartoon mealworms chomping) Mealworms fed a steady diet of HBCD-laden Styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet and totally safe when fed to shrimp.
The researchers say other plastic additives may have different fates within plastic-degrading mealworms and that the real answers are biodegradable plastic replacement materials, and reduction of single-use plastic products.
And that opens-up (Sound effect: can pull tab) a whole new can of worms.
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