Bizarre Plastic-Eating Wax Worm Might Be the Answer to Plastic Pollution

Apr 25, 2017 12:00 PM EDT

This caterpillar is commercially bred to be used as fishing bait, but a new research shows that it might serve a larger environmental purpose in solving widespread plastic pollution.

According to a report from Phys Org, scientists discovered that the wax worm was found to have the ability to biodegrade polyethylene, which is known to be one of the most commonly used and toughest plastics in the world. The wax worm lives as parasites in bee colonies.

The discovery kicked off when amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC) was taking out wax worms from her beehives. While the wax worms were temporarily in a plastic shopping bag, Bertocchini found it riddled with holes as the insects tried to eat their way out of it.

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The experience spurred her to team up with University of Cambridge's Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe. The researchers exposed a typical plastic bag to about a hundred wax worms. After 40 minutes, holes began to appear, then 12 hours later, 92 milligrams of the polyethylene disappeared, an impressive rate compared to other bacteria.

Tests show that the wax worms seem to be breaking down the polyethylene with the same enzymes they use to eat beeswax. If scientists can identify the chemical processes involved in the breakdown, this could be the answer to the growing amount of plastic waste littering the planet.

"This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans," Bombelli, the first author of the study, explained.

According to a report from BBC News, roughly 80 million tonnes of plastic polyethylene are produced every year. The material can take hundreds of years to entirely decompose.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

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