Wax worm may answer problem of plastic waste

Modesto Morganelli
Aprile 28, 2017

So waxworms - technically wax moth caterpillars - cannot only chew through plastic, they can break it down into ethylene glycol.

Bertocchini, from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC), Spain, collaborated with colleagues from the University of Cambridge's Department of Biochemistry to investigate further and undertake a timed experiment. Scientists discovered that the larva of Galleria mellonella, possess the capacity to break down the polyethylene plastic which is one of the most stubborn in terms of bio-degradation rate. The chemical bond within the PE compound is so strong that it can take more than 100 years for even the smallest bags to degrade, and much longer in others. Nowadays waste can be found everywhere, including in rivers and oceans.

Polyethylene is largely used in packaging and accounts for 40 % of the total demand for plastic products across Europe, where up to 38 % of plastic is discarded in landfills.

Polythene from plastic bags and bottles is polluting every corner of the Earth. In this way, we can begin to successfully eliminate this highly resistant material'.

Yet nature may provide an answer.

To confirm it wasn't just the chewing mechanism of the caterpillars degrading the plastic, the team mashed up some of the worms and smeared them on polyethylene bags, with similar results.

'The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up. These wax-worms diet include wax honeycomb which possess a likewise chemical structure present in polyethylene plastic.

The researchers conducted spectroscopic analysis to show the chemical bonds in the plastic were breaking. "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", the scientists stated.

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