Wax worm has an appetite for plastic, researchers discover
A plastic bag after being degraded by 10 worms for 30 minutes.
Published Monday, April 24, 2017 2:32PM EDT
Spanish researchers have discovered that a worm often found in beehives is also capable of breaking down one of the most common forms of plastic.
Research scientist Federica Bertocchini, who works for the Spanish National Research Council, has discovered that wax worms are capable of biodegrading polyethylene, the tough stretchy plastic used to make shopping bags, plastic wrap and other things.
Bertocchini, who is also an amateur beekeeper, made the discovery quite by accident, while working among her bee hives.
One day she discovered that the honeycomb panels stored in her house were covered with worms that were feeding on the leftover beeswax.
She removed the worms, which are also known as honey worms, put them in a plastic bag and tied it up tight while she cleaned off the panels.
When she finished and returned to the worm bags, she found they had eaten holes through the bag and escaped. So she decided to do some investigating.
Bertocchini and a team began experiments exposing the worms to polyethylene plastic to see how efficient they were at breaking it down.
They found that 100 wax worms are able to biodegrade 92 milligrams of polyethylene, or about 0.003 ounces, in 12 hours, “which really is very fast," says Bertocchini.
According to the research team, the composition of beeswax is similar to that of polyethylene, which may be why the worm has developed a mechanism to dispose of the plastic.
Bertocchini’s team is hoping the worm contains an enzyme that they could then isolate and produce synthetically on an industrial scale.
“In this way, we can begin to successfully eliminate this highly resistant material,” Bertocchini said in a statement.
The team’s research will be published in the next issue of Current Biology.