The rising problem of plastic pollution has scientists across the world turning to more efficient and inventive solutions, including Styrofoam-eating mealworms and bacteria that devour polyethylene terephthalate (PET) like it’s going out of style. As part of a new study, a team of Spanish researchers has come across yet another organism that could help reduce world’s plastic waste.
Belonging to the Pyralidae family, wax worms are the caterpillar version of wax moths, and are called so because they feed on beeswax. According to the scientists, these creepy-crawlies are also capable of consuming sizeable amounts of polyethylene plastic, turning it into some kind of environmentally-safe alcohol. This accidental discovery was made by Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, while trying to get rid of a wax worm infestation inside one of the beehives she keeps at her house.
She left the worms in a plastic bag with its ends tied, until she was ready to throw them away. She returned only to find that the creatures had chomped right through the polyethylene. Upon further analysis, she learned of their voracious appetite, thanks to which 100 of these worms can easily consume a regular-sized plastic carrier bag in less than 40 minutes. Bertocchini said:
We have carried out many experiments to test the efficacy of these worms in biodegrading polyethylene. 100 wax worms are capable of biodegrading 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours, which really is very fast.
To better understand what the organisms were doing, the team mashed up a bunch of wax worms and left it beside the plastic. Within 14 hours, approximately 13-percent of the plastic vanished, leaving only ethylene glycol behind. The resultant compound, the scientists point out, is a type of alcohol commonly found in antifreeze.
As revealed by the researchers, this is quite possibly one of the fastest techniques of biodegrading plastic ever found. Bertocchini added:
We still don’t know the details of how this biodegradation occurs, but there is a possibility that an enzyme is responsible. The next step is to detect, isolate, and produce this enzyme in vitro on an industrial scale. In this way, we can begin to successfully eliminate this highly resistant material.