Wax worms are considered a nuisance by beekeepers, bait by fishermen, and now potential saviors of our plastic riddled world. While Federica Bertocchini, a scientist of the Spanish National Research Council, was tending to her beehives, she pulled wax worms out of the hives and plopped them in a plastic bag. Bertocchini soon found the wax worms had chewed holes through the plastic bag she used to house them. Upon this discovery, Bertocchini reached out to her peers at Cambridge University to explore the potential of wax worms and their appetites for plastic.
The scientists studying 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 team of scientists also set out to determine just what the worms were turning plastic into.
the experiment to determine whether a wax worm digests plastic
In order to determine how the wax worms break down plastic, the scientists created a paste from the wax worms in a blender 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. What those smaller molecules are is still 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 that contains 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.