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Wax worms convert waste plastic to useful product
May 15, 2017, 5:26 pm

The most common plastic used in packaging, polyethylene, represents about 40 percent of the total demand for plastic items worldwide, with more than two million used every minute around the world. Unfortunately, polyethylene is also one of the toughest plastics, and breaking it down “is almost impossible without chemical pre-treatment or burning, which in turn produces pollution.

Now, biologists at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain say they have discovered that the caterpillar of a common insect, the wax moth, Galleria mellonella, can devour polyethylene and, in the process, generate the industrially useful molecule ethylene glycol.

In experiments, the researchers found that when a polyethylene film was left in direct contact with wax worms, holes started appearing after 40 minutes, with an estimated 2.2 holes per worm per hour. After roughly 12 hours, about 100 wax worms had chewed 92 milligrams worth of holes in a standard polyethylene shopping bag.

When the scientists rendered wax worms into a slurry, they found out the insects were doing more than just eating the plastic. The caterpillar slurry was capable of biodegrading polyethylene, breaking it down into ethylene glycol, a compound often used in antifreeze and as an ingredient in plastics.

The researchers now aim to isolate the molecules or microbes that wax worms use to biodegrade polyethylene and then see if they can produce it at a large scale and apply it to get rid of polyethylene.

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