Wax worm saliva degrades plastic 

According to an article from Eco-watch, a surprising nature-based solution to the plastic pollution crisis could have been discovered due to an unexpected wax-worm infestation.

Federica Bertocchini, a scientist and amateur beekeeper came across some unwanted wax-moth larvae in one of her hives. Because these intruders feed on beeswax she removed them from the hive and placed them in a them in a plastic bag made from polyethylene (PE). When she returned she found that they had eaten through the plastic bag and they were now crawling everywhere.

After further experimentations Bertocchini and her research team concluded that wax worms could after just 40 minutes both digest and biodegrade plastic. Their findings were published in Current Biology but they continued the research to see what more the worms could do.

Nature Communications Tuesday and the team from Madrid's Margarita Salas Center for Biological Studies (CIB) isolated two enzymes in the wax worms' saliva that could degrade PE within a couple of hours at room temperature. In a press release, Bertocchini explained that the enzymes found in the worms' saliva can help with the initial and most difficult part of breaking down PE. She explains that oxygen must first penetrate the plastic molecule to begin the oxidation process. Under normal environmental conditions it can take years for plastic to be degraded. PE is used mainly to make plastic bags and is a major contributor to the problem of plastic pollution, it makes up 30 percent of all plastic production. 

The enzymes from the saliva of the wax worm can first oxidise and then degrade the PE polymers within hours. The researchers know there is a lot more work to be done to enable this to be upscaled but they are excited about the future possibilities of this discovery.


Author: Sylvia Jacobs

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