Five years after wax worms were found to consume the world's most commonly produced plastic, scientists have lost none of their optimism in touting the caterpillar larvae of wax moths as a potential solution to our growing problem of plastic waste. Indeed, new research finds the larvae's saliva to be perfectly suited to breaking down polyethylene, which makes up 30% of plastic production, per the Guardian. Federica Bertocchini, a molecular biologist and amateur beekeeper who first noticed the hive-plaguing wax worms could eat through plastic bags, says two enzymes in the saliva quickly degrade polyethylene without the need for heat. As the BBC reports, "such an effective agent" hasn't been found in nature before.
Oxidation needs to occur for plastic to break down. As polyethylene is "highly resistant to oxygen," per the BBC, it usually needs to be pretreated with heat or UV light. But there's no need for that with wax worm saliva, which at room temperature allowed oxygen to penetrate the polymer within an hour, according to the outlet. It notes that step alone can take years of weathering in the environment. "What we think is that the enzymes are capable of an accelerated version of the weathering of polyethylene," says Clemente Fernandez Arias of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), co-author of the study published Tuesday in Nature Communications. It's "changing the paradigm of plastic biodegradation," adds lead author Bertocchini, also of CSIC, per Reuters.
Importantly, researchers were able to produce the worms' saliva enzymes synthetically. (Reuters notes carbon dioxide would be generated if billions of wax worms were left to do the work on their own.) If produced on a larger scale, they could be used to break down plastic waste around the world, researchers say. The idea is that "plastics can be degraded in controlled conditions, limiting or eventually eliminating altogether the release of microplastics," Arias tells Reuters. "We imagine you could apply this new understanding to large plastic waste management facilities," Bertocchini adds, per the BBC. "But you could also have a home-based kit [that] could help you degrade your own plastic." (Read more plastic stories.)