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Can Plastic Eating Bugs Save the World?

hand holding a long worm-like bug

The planet produces over 300 million tons of plastic each year. Recently, scientists have discovered that wax worms can eat plastic bags or at least dissolve the contents in plastic. A team of European scientists, led by Federica Bertocchini, 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. Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at the University of Cantabria in Spain, 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. Small holes began to appear in the plastic where the larvae had been. Wax worms get their name 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. “Since they eat wax, they may have evolved a molecule to break it down, and that molecule might also work on plastic,” Bertocchini said. When they placed the worms on polyethylene plastic, they found that each worm created an average of 2.2 holes per hour. At this rate, it would take 100 worms nearly a month to completely break down an average plastic bag. By no means is this quick, but when have worms been known for their quickness. An enzyme in the worms or the bacteria living in and on their bodies was dissolving the plastic. Scientists believe this is a start or at least a good academic exercise not a solution. There are many other species of wax worms that breakdown polyethylene, so scientists hope this will help them solve the plastic pollution crisis that seems to only get worse year by year.

Source: National Geographic, Carrie Arnold

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