Researchers discovered that a group of 100 wax worms can digest 92 milligrams of plastic in half a day, according to a new study published on April 2017.
A team of researchers found that bee wax, who thrive on wax, have been observed indulging into a new activity of munching into plastic. Other wax worms and caterpillars were found to eating polythene despite the fact that it is simply mush.
The team observed caterpillars performing the activity of eating plastic and realized that they digested plastic, which the researchers mashed and smeared the resulting paste on bags. This helped degrade around 13 percent of plastic. The plastic degraded, which showed that the caterpillars successfully transformed polyethylene into ethylene glycol.
“The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up. We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms.” Said co-author Paolo Bombelli.
Researchers explain that polyethylene and beeswax consumed by caterpillars, share a similar chemical structure. Hence, the research concludes that the lipid compounds involved in digesting beeswax might also be required for the breakdown of polyethylene.
“Wax is a polymer, a sort of ‘natural plastic,’ and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene,” explains Bertocchini.
“The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut. The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible. If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable.” says Bombelli.
Scientists hope to identify the enzymes involved in such degradation in wax worms, to further initiate large scale plastic degradation in industrial applications.