While tending to her beehives, a scientist of the Spanish National Research Council, Federica Bertocchini, pulled some wax worms out of the hives and plopped them in a plastic bag. The wax worms soon chewed holes through the plastic bag. Upon discovering the holes, she reached out to peers at Cambridge University to explore the potential of wax worms and their appetites.
The group working with the worms needed to make sure that the worms were indeed digesting the polyethylene of the plastic bag and breaking the chemical bonds, rather than just munching the plastic into microplastic pieces. We do not need more microplastics.
the process to determine whether the wax worms digest plastic
To do this, the scientists created a paste from the wax worms in a blender (this was not a good day for worms’s rights) and spread the “homogenated worm” over the plastic. The results proved that some sort of chemical in the worms was indeed degrading the plastic on a molecular level. As of now, the team working with the worms is not sure just where the helpful chemical is coming from. It may be an enzyme produced by the wax worms, a chemical created by a bacteria found in the worm, or a combination of both. The team is also unsure of what the resulting molecules of this process are. The scientists confirmed that the long chains of carbon atoms are breaking down into smaller molecules, but what those smaller molecules are is currently a mystery.
The team’s next goal is to isolate the enzyme that is breaking the plastic’s molecular bonds. This may lead them to be able to grow bacteria containing the enzyme. Bacteria is easier to farm than a pile of wax worms. But sit tight, the team has already been working on this for a few years now, and they don’t expect to have an abra-cadabra-plastic-disappearo solution anytime soon. We’re still worms away – but hopeful!
Wax worms are the caterpillar stage of the wax moth. They are commercially bred for fishing bait. Their food of choice, beeswax, gives them their name.