Behold the Waxworm, a caterpillar capable of eating plastic. These creepy crawlies are normally found in beehives where they dine on honey and wax. The Waxworm is also regarded as pests by beekeepers. For that reason, scientist and amateur beekeeper, Federica Bertocchini, cleaned them out of her beehive and put them in a plastic bag she left in her house.
Then in what could probably be described as the opening to a horror movie, the worms ate their way out of the bag and Bertocchini came back to find them crawling all over the room. And thus began her study into these fascinating worms – the results of which are published in Current Biology.
Working out of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Bertocchini and her team found waxworms can digest polyethylene, a hard-to-break-down plastic used to make things like shopping bags and food packaging. The team believes the worms may be able to break down the compound because of its similarity to their natural diet of beeswax.
“We still don’t know the details of how this biodegradation occurs, but there is a possibility that an enzyme is responsible,” Bertocchini said in a statement. “The next step is to detect, isolate, and produce this enzyme in vitro on an industrial scale. In this way, we can begin to successfully eliminate this highly resistant material.”
To the researchers’ delight, the worms feasted pretty quickly. About a hundred waxworms were able to eat 96 milligrams of plastic in 12 hours, according to the study. Afterwards, they converted the meal into ethylene glycol – a compound that decomposes in a matter of weeks.
And if you’re wondering how the worms themselves fared after eating all this processed food, you need not worry. “They look healthy, although we did not study this aspect. I can say they keep on forming their cocoon as usual,” Bertocchini said, according to Popular Science.
Humans produce 80 million tonnes of polyethylene and go through over a trillion plastic bags in just one year. Even the plastic waste that doesn’t end up clogging our gutters and oceans will still take 100 to 400 years to fully biodegrade in the soil. So if this research team can find that miracle enzyme fueling the worm’s power to eat plastic, we may have just stumbled on an invaluable tool for dealing with our plastic waste problem.