The global plastic bag pollution crisis could be solved by a waxworm capable of eating through the material at high speeds. Researchers have described the tiny worm's ability to break down even the toughest plastics as "extremely exciting" and said the discovery could be engineered into an environmentally-friendly solution on an industrial scale.
Commonly found living in bee hives, the waxworm proved it could eat its way through polyethylene, which is extremely hard to break down, more than 1,400 times faster than other organisms. Scientists believe the creature has powerful enzymes which attack plastic's chemical bonds, in the same way they eat the complex wax found in hives.
The waxworm's potential was discovered by accident when biologist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini cleaned out her hives and temporarily placed the parasites in a plastic shopping bag. She soon noticed it was full of holes.
In tests at Cambridge, 100 waxworms were let loose on a plastic bag from a British supermarket, with holes appearing after just 40 minutes. Over a period of 12 hours, 92 mg of plastic had been consumed. By contrast, previous trials using bacteria had found the microbes could only work through 0.13 mg of plastic in 24 hours.
The creatures transformed the polyethylene into an "un-bonded" substance called ethylene glycol. Dr. Bertocchini, who led the research, said: "The challenge for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible for it. We are planning to implement this finding to get rid of plastic waste, working towards a solution to save our oceans, rivers, and the entire environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation."
Quite aside from how and where to farm all waxworms, there's something about them that news reports have failed to mention. Specifically, these worms love to eat the wax from which bees make their honeycombs — and so they can destroy bee colonies. Waxworms are thought to cause more than $4 million's worth of damage annually in the United States alone. With bee populations already under severe stress from pesticides, habitat loss and predators, researchers should think twice about breeding one of their worst enemies in huge numbers.
One way or another, these days around a trillion plastic bags are used around the world each year, of which a huge number find their way into the oceans or landfills. With the waxworm discovery being still far from the solution to the world's piles of garbage, everybody can do a lot to reduce plastic waste by bringing their own shopping bags, giving up bottled water, rethinking their food storage etc.
What do waxworms do, according to the text?