Wax worms can make plastic biodegradable. They could hold the key to resolve a serious environmental problem
The modern day world seems to be made out of plastic. Cheap, easy to make and versatile, plastic has become synonymous with everyday life but since its not biodegradable, what to do with all the left over plastic has become on of the most important questions that environmentalists are trying to answer. Some have taken to re-purposing discarded plastic objects but now, a scientists from Spain suggests that there could be an industrial process that could help make plastic biodegradable. All researchers have to do is to study the humble wax worm, capable of eating plastic.
Frederica Bertocchini from Spain’s IBBTEC found that wax worms, caterpillars that will eventually become honeycomb moths, feasting, as the name suggests, on wax and honeycomb, are able to digest and transform plastic.
The discovery came by accident as Bertocchini is a keen beekeeper. She gathered some wax worms she found in her garden and put them in a plastic shopping bag while she was cleaning the trees. To her amazement, when she wanted to set the worms free, she found that they have already escaped by eating their way through the plastic bag.
This was Bertocchini’s first hit that these modest worms could be able to do something remarkable with polyethylene. Bertocchini started her research and laboratory studies have shown that 100 worms are able to biodegrade 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours. And its not only the worms that are effective in breaking down plastic. Contact with the cocoon can also cause polyethylene to break down.
This scientific research has great potential, Bertocchini says as plastic has become such a huge environmental problem.
“Plastic is a global problem. Nowadays waste can be found everywhere, including rivers and oceans. Polyethylene, in particular, is very resistant, so it is very difficult to degrade naturally, ” said Bertocchini.””
But her research with wax worms gives her hope that she will be able to find an answer about how the process occurs and how it could be implemented on a large industrial scale.
“We still do not know the details of how biodegration occurs, but there is a possibility that an enzyme is responsible. The next step is to detect, isolate, and produce it in vitro on an industrial scale. This way we can begin to eliminate this resistant material, effectively, “says Bertocchini.
Bertocchini is now working together with Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe from Cambridge University and her paper regarding the wax worms will be published in the journal of Current Biology.
PLASTIC FACT BOX
According to an article published in Science magazine, in 2010 alone, between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tones have entered our ocean.