Plastic bags clog up our gutters, landfills, and waterways, but researchers hope that plastic-munching worms may hold a secret to making these messes more manageable.
Wax moth larvae are bred as fish bait, but left to their own devices in the wild, they love to chomp on beeswax — bedeviling beekeepers everywhere. One amateur apiarist and scientist happened to notice one day that a bunch of waxworms she’d put in a plastic bag — to keep them from re-infesting one of her hives — had chewed through the thin walls of their plastic prison.
“I went back to the room where I had left the worms and I found that they were everywhere,” Federica Bertocchini, a researcher at the Spanish National Researcher Council, told The Guardian. “The bag was full of holes.”
Could these worms be put to work breaking down plastic bags? She and a team of scientists at Cambridge University wanted to find out, putting worms to the test in the lab: A subsequent study published in Current Biology found that 100 worms were capable of consuming 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours.
Researchers believe the grubs use the same enzymes to break down polyethylene that they do to eat beeswax, and are now hoping to identify those enzymes. They could then possibly put those genes into bacteria or phytoplankton to break down plastic in the wild. Or, scientists could breed a whole lot of waxworms and just turn them loose, a plan that would only work if the critters want to keep eating plastic shopping bags.
“We want to know if they’re munching the plastic to use as a food, or just because they want to escape,” Cambridge biochemist Paolo Bombelli told The Guardian. “If they just want to escape, they are going to get fed up very soon. But if they’re munching it to use as an energy source it’s a completely different ball game. We are not yet able to answer this, but we’re working on it.”