Beetle larvae can save the planet from plastic by destroying it

In the North Pacific Ocean, there is a huge plastic garbage island that is seven times the size of the Korean Peninsula. An island called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, weighing 13 million tons of plastic. People are now consuming 20,000 units of plastic per second around the world. Plastics will take decades, if not hundreds, of years to decompose naturally. It has recently been shown that the plastic problem can be solved by the beetles that are widespread in Korea. The study of these beetles is published by Applied and Environmental Microbiology, an authoritative journal in the field of applied and environmental microbiology.

A joint research team consisting of Professor Heng Jun Cha and PhD student Seongwook Woo in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) with Professor Intek Song of Andong National University has discovered for the first time that beetle larvae from the order beetle Plesiophthophthalmus davidis can decompose polystyrene. This stuff is very difficult to decompose.

By 2017, the world generated 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste, of which less than 9% were recycled. It is known that polystyrene, which accounts for about 6% of total plastic production, is difficult to degrade due to its unique molecular structure.

The research team found that dark beetle larvae in East Asia, including the Korean Peninsula, can consume polystyrene and reduce both its mass and molecular weight. The team also confirmed that isolated intestinal flora can oxidize and alter the surface properties of the polystyrene film.

In addition, it was found that the intestinal flora of these larvae consisted of a very simple group of bacterial species (less than six), in contrast to the intestinal flora of other common polystyrene insects.

The unique diet of the dark beetle larvae found in this study allows other insects that feed on the rotten tree to break down polystyrene. In addition, the development of an efficient flora degrading polystyrene using bacterial strains found in the simple intestinal flora of P. davidis is highly anticipated.

This study is also notable for the fact that the first author of the article, Songuk Woo, was interested in insects from childhood and wanted to make the world a better world with their help. His research clearly demonstrates that the discovered beetle larvae can save the planet from plastic by destroying it.