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Managing Editor  | April 2017

Scientists discover wax worm could provide biodegradable solution for plastic pollution


Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper and a scientist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC) in Spain, made a chance discovery that could have major ramifications on the problem of plastic waste.

 

wax_worms

Close-up of wax worm next to biodegraded holes in a polyethylene plastic shopping bag
from a UK supermarket as used in the experiment. (University of Cambridge)

 

As Bertocchini was removing wax worms, the larvae of the wax moth (which can be parasitic to bee colonies by hatching and feeding on beeswax), from honeycombs in hives that she was cultivating, she put the worms in a plastic shopping bag. That turned out to be only a temporary solution because the worms quickly ate through the material, riddling it with holes.

 

This discovery was turned into an experiment in collaboration with scientists at the University of Cambridge (U.K.) Department of Biochemistry, according to a report on the school website.

 

The scientists put 100 wax worms into a typical plastic shopping bag from a supermarket and saw that holes appeared after 40 minutes and that after 12 hours 92 mg of material had been eaten by the worms.

 

The article noted, “Scientists say that the degradation rate is extremely fast compared to other recent discoveries, such as bacteria reported last year to biodegrade some plastics at a rate of just 0.13 mg a day.”

 

It continued, “The beeswax on which wax worms grow is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds: building block molecules of living cells, including fats, oils and some hormones. While the molecular detail of wax biodegradation requires further investigation, the researchers say it is likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking similar types of chemical bonds.”

 

Analysis showed that the chemical bonds in the plastic were breaking and that the worms turned polyethylene into ethylene glycol, an un-bonded monomer.

 

Scientists also found that it was not the chewing process of the wax worms that caused the plastic to break down. They “mashed up” some of the worms and spread them on the plastic with similar results. This demonstrated that there was an enzyme being produced by the worms that was breaking the bonds of the plastic.

 

“As the molecular details of the process become known, the researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution on an industrial scale for managing polyethylene waste,” the article concluded.

 

The research was recently published in Current Biology.

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