High School Girl Discovers Styrofoam-Eating Bacterium

Photo: dhcp.tcgs.tc.edu.tw.

I blogged about a Canadian student's discovery of plastic-eating microorganisms last May. Just last month, another 16-year-old high school student (this time from Taiwan), Tseng I-Ching swept the world's largest science fair in the Peoples Choice Category at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) for her discovery of a polystyrene-decomposing bacterium derived from mealworm beetles.

I-Ching vivisected more than 500 mealworm beetles to isolate the single bacterium that allows the mealworm to digest one of the most troublesome forms of waste on the planet — Styrofoam. For her discovery, I-Ching was awarded the top prize in the microbiology category along with four other prizes.

The girl, nicknamed "Frog," says her main career objective is to become a microbiologist and "save the world." To that end, she spent the better part of her school year skipping classes to develop her innovative project isolating the "red bacteria" with the support of two leading microbiology scholars in Taipei.

Her hard work got her in trouble at school (at one point she almost stopped her research project due to pressure from her school teachers) but she carried on and is now grateful she stuck with her passion. As she says, "I love to observe and find wonder from nature. I love to solve questions. This is how I started my project."

There have been two successful bacteria-based solutions for styrene decomposition developed at the Department of Biotechnology in Tottori, Japan, as well as the Department of Microbiology at the National University of Ireland. Both rely upon a patented soil organism called Pseudomonas putida.

Polystyrene is the bad boy of the petrochemical industry. In addition to the highly toxic chemicals required to manufacture polysterene products (namely benzene), expanded polystyrene foam requires ozone-depleting HCFC's (CFC's used to be used to make Styrofoam, but they have been banned for the most part). Then once disposed, it basically NEVER decomposes. It does however break apart into smaller granules, but because of its light weight, those particles quickly become both airborne and waterborne, where they wreck havoc on the ocean food chain.

The U.S. disposes of about 25 billion Styrofoam cups every year and tons more extruded and expanded polystyrene packaging material. It's a big, big problem. Biodegradable alternatives are now hitting the market, but hopefully Tseng I-Ching's small discovery will help give to give existing Styrofoam waste a proper burial.