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Environ Sci Technol. 2015 Oct 20;49(20):12080-6. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.5b02661. Epub 2015 Oct 1.

Biodegradation and Mineralization of Polystyrene by Plastic-Eating Mealworms: Part 1. Chemical and Physical Characterization and Isotopic Tests.

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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, William & Cloy Codiga Resource Recovery Research Center, Center for Sustainable Development & Global Competitiveness, Stanford University , Stanford, California 94305-4020, United States.
Shenzhen Key Laboratory of Bioenergy, BGI-Shenzhen , Shenzhen, Guangdong 518083, People's Republic of China.


Polystyrene (PS) is generally considered to be durable and resistant to biodegradation. Mealworms (the larvae of Tenebrio molitor Linnaeus) from different sources chew and eat Styrofoam, a common PS product. The Styrofoam was efficiently degraded in the larval gut within a retention time of less than 24 h. Fed with Styrofoam as the sole diet, the larvae lived as well as those fed with a normal diet (bran) over a period of 1 month. The analysis of fecula egested from Styrofoam-feeding larvae, using gel permeation chromatography (GPC), solid-state (13)C cross-polarization/magic angle spinning nuclear magnetic resonance (CP/MAS NMR) spectroscopy, and thermogravimetric Fourier transform infrared (TG-FTIR) spectroscopy, substantiated that cleavage/depolymerization of long-chain PS molecules and the formation of depolymerized metabolites occurred in the larval gut. Within a 16 day test period, 47.7% of the ingested Styrofoam carbon was converted into CO2 and the residue (ca. 49.2%) was egested as fecula with a limited fraction incorporated into biomass (ca. 0.5%). Tests with α (13)C- or β (13)C-labeled PS confirmed that the (13)C-labeled PS was mineralized to (13)CO2 and incorporated into lipids. The discovery of the rapid biodegradation of PS in the larval gut reveals a new fate for plastic waste in the environment.

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