Like most good discoveries, this is a story that is born of pure coincidence. Federica Bertocchini, a scientist at the Spanish National Research Council, who also keeps beehives as a hobby, realized that the honeycomb panels stored in her house were covered with wax worms (also known as honey worms). They were feeding on the leftover honey and wax from her bees.
She immediately removed the worms, set them aside in a plastic bag, and went to clean the panels. When she turned back to where she left the worms, they were everywhere. “They had escaped from the bag even though it had been closed, and when I checked, I saw that the bag was full of holes. There was only one explanation: the worms had made the holes and had escaped,” Bertocchini said. And that was when the journey of discovery began.
Every year, the average person uses more than 230 plastic bags. Annually, around 80 million tons of polyethylene are produced around the world. For example, plastic bags with low polyethylene take around 100 years to decompose completely. The toughest, most resistant ones take up to 400 years to break down.
The reason why this discovery might be a game changer is that, currently, the process of chemical degradation – which requires the use of corrosive liquids such as nitric acid – can take up to several months. Should wax worms prove to be an effective solution to the world’s mounting plastic waste crisis, they could also help cities like Delhi, New York, and Tokyo with their massive waste management issues.
Betrocchini, who also works at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Santander, northern Spain, carried out a number of experiments with her team to test the efficacy of wax worms in biodegrading polyethylene. It turns out that a total of 100 wax worms are capable of biodegrading 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours, which Betrocchini describes as “very fast.” Throughout their experiment, they also found that, following the larval phase, the worm wraps itself in a whitish-colored cocoon or chrysalis. The plastic biodegrades by simply coming in contact with the cocoon.
The researchers explained that, because the composition of beeswax is similar to that of polyethylene, that may be why the worm has developed a mechanism to dispose of this type of plastic. However, the researchers admit that the details of how this biodegradation occured remain unknown, but they are guessing 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,” explained Bertocchini.
The title of this article was changed from “Worms That Eat Plastic Have Been Discovered” to “Could Wax Worms Be The Answer To The World’s Plastic Waste Crisis?” on 23 April, 2018. This article was also edited for clarity.