Ubiquity of consumption and microbe-dependent biodegradation of petroleum-based plastic by yellow mealworms (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae: Tenebrio molitor)

Wei-Min Wu, S.-S. Yang, A. Brandon, Y. Yang, D. Ning, S.-H. Gao, H.-Q. Fan, Y.-R. Li, R. Fan, Z.-Y. Wang, S.-Y. Cai, B.-Y. Peng, Y.N, Su, Q.-Q. Wu, L.-Y. Ding, L.-J. Zhang, W.-W. Cai, Debra Phillips, J. Gao, D.-F. XingG.-Q. Zhuang, X.-L. Zhuang, J. Yang, Y.-L. Zhang, J. Ren, H. Tao, N. Ren, J.-Z. Zhou, M.E. Benbow, Craig Criddle

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


Petroleum-based plastic wastes have been a global concern for several decades because they are considered a remarkably degradation resistant polymer that can take decades. The biodegradation and mineralization of polystyrene (PS) was verified by feeding Styrofoam as sole diet to larvae of Tenebrio molitor (or yellow mealworms) in Beijing, China, as reported in 2015. The ability of consuming PS foam and other major plastic foams including polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and others by mealworms has been observed globally according to our survey and a literature search. We examined 12 strains of mealworms obtained from the USA, China and UK. The mealworms proved to have ability to depolymerize and degrade PS foam. The results demonstrated that the supplementation of the nutrition-rich co-diet such as bran supported mealworm growth and then effectively improved the bioactivity of mealworms and accelerated the plastic consumption rate and the reproduction of a second generation of mealworms. After larvae were fed with gentamicin to depress their gut microbes all mealworms from China and the USA showed significant inhibition of PS depolymerization, suggesting an essential role of gut microbes in plastic degradation. The gut microbial communities of mealworms were analyzed using Miseq high throughput sequencing, which demonstrated that they were significantly diversified with different sources. The communities also showed significant compositional differences among strains of mealworms fed plastic diets versus those fed control (bran) diets, which suggests that the diversified gut microbiomes were directly involved in the degradation of both PE and PS.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted - 15 Jan 2018
EventAmerican Society for Microbiology - Massachusetts, Boston, United States
Duration: 17 May 201420 May 2014


ConferenceAmerican Society for Microbiology
CountryUnited States


  • plastic wastes, polystyrene, polyethylene, biodegradation, mealworms


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