This Bug Can Eat Plastic. But Can It Clean Up Our Mess?
Each year, the world produces 300 million tons of plastic, much of which resists degradation and ends up polluting every corner of the globe. But a team of European scientists may have found a unique solution to the plastic problem. They discovered that a common insect can chew sizable holes in a plastic shopping bag within 40 minutes.
“This study is another milestone discovery for the research on biodegradation of plastics,” says Wei-Min Wu, an environmental engineer at Stanford University.
The discovery was led by Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at the University of Cantabria in Spain. She first noticed the possibility as she cleaned out her backyard bee hives two years ago.
She removed some wax worms (Galleria mellonella) living in the hive and placed them in an old plastic bag. When she checked the bag an hour later, however, she discovered small holes in the part of the bag with the larvae. Although Bertocchini wasn’t an entomologist, she guessed immediately what was happening.
The larval form of a small moth, wax worms get their names because they live on the wax in bee hives. Like plastic, wax is a polymer, which consists of a long string of carbon atoms held together, with other atoms branching off the sides of the chain. Both wax and the polyethylene in Bertocchini’s plastic bag had a similar carbon backbone.
“Since they eat wax, they may have evolved a molecule to break it down, and that molecule might also work on plastic,” Bertocchini said.
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