Now that we are facing the immense problem of plastic waste overflowing our planet, we almost wish something would just magically take care of all the dangerous trash finding its way onto streets and ocean waters. Well, while this solution may not yet exist – scientists have discovered that waxworms have a peculiar taste for plastic! But there is no magic whatsoever to the marvel of those little caterpillars – only the wonders of biology.
Scientists have reported that waxworms (Galleria mellonella) consume plastic at “uniquely high speed” and are able to break down even the toughest of them. During research, these worms proved perfectly able to eat through the infamously hard to break down polyethylene and did it 1,400 times faster than other organisms! According to scientists, the worm’s talent for breaking down such difficult materials lies in the potent enzymes in its saliva or gut – enzymes the worm uses to break down beeswax, which is similar to plastic in its chemical bonds.
What makes the news even more interesting, is it was discovered purely by accident. A biologist and amateur beekeeper, Federica Bertocchini, placed the worms temporarily in a plastic bag while cleaning out her hives and quickly noticed the holes that were appearing in the bag. During the following tests at Cambridge, 100 waxworms were released onto a plastic bag and holes began to appear after just 40 minutes!
Researchers claim that this discovery could be turned into a solution to the plastic problem on an industrial scale through a reproduction in large quantities of the specific enzyme that is responsible for breaking down the plastic. As reported by Independent.ie, Paolo Bombelli from Cambridge University believes that the newly discovered enzymes could be used to adapt recycling plants to biodegrade mass quantities of plastic and one day the enzymes could even be sprayed directly onto landfill sites or sea plants.
This thrilling discovery makes us hopeful for a breakthrough in the issue of plastic waste and the future of dealing with unrecycled trash. But let us not forget that, however uncannily great at eating plastic these waxworms are, they will not simply end our plastic problem. We currently dump around 8.8 million tons of plastic in the oceans every year – and around 700 marine species are threatened with extinction as a result. While these waxworms could lend these animals a hand, the responsibility to make conscious choices and take care of the world around us is still ours.