'Maybe we can find the molecule and produce it at high-scale rather than using a million worms in a plastic bag.'
Wax worms are typically known for two things:
1) Being used by fishermen as juicy bait.
2) Their bad habit of destroying beehives by eating the wax comb.
Scientists have discovered that these worms also have the ability to munch their way through a very different sort of material: plastic bags.
Federica Bertotocchini, a scientist of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain, made the discovery when she was cleaning up a wax worm infestation in one of the beehives she keeps at home. She put the worms in a plastic bag, tied it closed, and put the bag in a room of her house while she finished cleaning the hive. When she returned to the room, 'they were everywhere,' Bertocchini said in a statement.
She quickly realised that the worms had escaped by eating their way out of the plastic bag.
'This project began there and then,' she said. To make sure the worms weren't just chewing through the plastic but actually eating it, the researchers mushed up some worms and left the resulting paste in contact with the plastic. After 14 hours, about 13% of the plastic was gone, suggesting that some compound in the worm’s digestive system was really digesting the bag. Researchers also scanned the chewed-up bags for residue, and found that ethylene glycol – the main compound in antifreeze – was left behind, thus 'confirming [polyethylene] degradation.'
Polyethylene packaging can take between 100 and 400 years to degrade naturally. Yes, it's depressing to think about, but the fact is that even after you've been dead and buried for a century, your shopping bags will still be clogging up the planet.
While this discovery is far from being an effective solution to plastic waste, Bertocchini told Ed Yong at The Atlantic that she hopes to find the enzyme the worms use to break down the plastic: 'Maybe we can find the molecule and produce it at high-scale rather than using a million worms in a plastic bag.'