The wax worm! It’s a caterpillar that is typically used for fishing bait and known for damaging beehives by eating their wax comb. However, it has now been observed munching on a different material: plastic bags.
Scientist Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain first noticed the wax worms’ plastic-eating skills when she was cleaning up a wax worm infestation in one of the beehives she keeps at home. She put the worms in a plastic bag, tied it closed, and put the bag in a room of her house while she finished cleaning the hive. When she returned to the room, “they were everywhere,” Bertocchini said. They had escaped by chewing their way out of the bag, and quickly.
“This project began there and then,” she said. In a paper published in Current Biology on April 24th. Bertocchini and her colleagues described 100 wax worms chewing through a typical plastic shopping bag (the kind that people discard at a rate of 1 trillion per year globally) in around 40 minutes. To make sure the worms weren’t just chewing through the plastic but actually eating it, the researchers pureed some worms and left the paste in contact with the plastic; after 14 hours, about 13% of the plastic was gone, suggesting that some compound in the worm’s digestive system was truly digesting the bag.
While the discovery is far from a solution to plastic waste (the worms wouldn’t be able to survive in the zero-oxygen environment of a landfill, for example) Bertocchini said she hopes to find the enzyme the worms use to break down the plastic: “Maybe we can find the molecule and produce it at high-scale rather than using a million worms in a plastic bag.”