WATCH | Don't be fooled by the size of these wax worms. They can biodegrade one of the world's toughest materials.
Thanks to the work of Federica Bertocchini, a research scientist at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), there may be less plastic waste in the future. She discovered that wax worms, which are known to typically feed on honey and wax from honeycombs of bees, are capable are biodegrading polyethylene, one of the toughest plastic materials frequently used to make shopping bags, food packaging and other plastic items.
Bertocchini noted just how important the discovery is in the sphere of environmentalism.
"Plastic is a global problem. Nowadays waste can be found everywhere, including in rivers and oceans. Polyethylene in particular is very resistant, and as such is very difficult to degrade naturally."
To put things in better perspective, it could take nearly 100 years to decompose low-density polyethylene plastic bags. Meanwhile, the densest products could take up to 400 years to completely break down. As a result, the chemical process to chemically degrade polyethylene materials is rather long and requires the use of corrosive liquids, such as nitric acid.
However, Bertocchini noted the efficiency of the wax worms' ability to degrade the tough material.
"We have carried out many experiments to test the efficacy of these worms in biodegrading polyethylene. 100 wax worms are capable of biodegrading 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours, which really is very fast," she said.
The researchers remain uncertain why the worm has developed the ability to dispose polyethylene, but did note that the composition of beeswax is similar to the material used to compose plastic bags.
"We still don't know the details of how this biodegradation occurs, but there is a possibility 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", Bertocchini added.
In terms of the process, Bertocchini explained that, following the larva phase, the wax worms wrap themselves in a whitish-colored cocoon or chrysalis. The researchers found that when the cocoon is simply in mere contact with polyethylene, the plastic began to biodegrade.
And, similar to other groundbreaking discoveries, such as what's now known as penicillin, Bertocchini stumbled upon the worms' ability to degrade polyethylene.
"I removed the worms and put them in a plastic bag while I cleaned the panels. After finishing, I went back to the room where I had left the worms and I found that they were everywhere. They had escaped from the bag even though it had been closed and when I checked, I saw that the bag project began there and then," she added.