The answer to our global plastic catastrophe may be in sight. Spanish researchers have discovered that the wax worm, a caterpillar known for munching on the wax within beehives, is able to devour and biodegrade polyethylene plastic, converting it into a form of alcohol found in antifreeze.
Federica Bertocchini, a scientist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, first uncovered the worm’s unique abilities by chance, when she attempted to clean up a wax worm infestation in one of her home beehives. She placed the worms in a plastic bag, tied it off, and left it in her house – only to find that the worms had chewed through the plastic and escaped.
In a new paper published in Current Biology, she describes how 100 of the worms can chew through an ordinary polyethylene shopping bag in 40 minutes. At first, Bertocchini and her colleagues assumed the worms might be simply chewing through the plastic and shredding it. But then they took slightly nauseating step of pureeing the worms and leaving the resulting paste in contact with the plastic itself.
The results were bizarre – after 14 hours in contact with the worm paste, 13 percent of the plastic had dissolved and degraded into ethylene glycol, the main component in antifreeze. Rather than simply shredding the plastic with their mouths, this showed that some compound in the worms’ digestive systems is actually breaking down and digesting the material. There have been attempts to degrade plastic before using fungus and bacteria, but none of these experiments have yielded results within a matter of hours.
This finding could revolutionize the way that we currently manage waste. At the moment, landfills around the globe are packed with polyethylene shopping bags, which take between 100-400 years to degrade naturally. If researchers can isolate the enzyme the wax worms use to digest it, they could potentially treat the plastic in landfills with the substance to help it break down faster.
Via Daily Mail
Images via Pixabay and the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria