Wax Worms Eat Plastic, But Can They Clean Our Mess?

The world produces 300 million tons of plastic every year. Most of these plastics are non biodegradable and they end up polluting the globe everywhere. But a team of scientists found an unusual solution that might help our plastic problem. A study by Brandon University says that wax worms, which normally eat wax and live in beehives, can also survive on polyethylene. Polystyrenes are the kind of plastic used in shopping bags and elsewhere. 

This worm eats plastic, but can it clean our mess?

Wax Worms Eat Plastic, But Can They Clean Our Mess?
via Wikimedia Commons/Sam Droege

The first experiment with these wax worms happened in Spain in 2015. It was led by Federica Bertocchini. She is a developmental biologist at the University of Cantabria in Spain. She removed the wax worms living in her backyard beehive and placed them in an old plastic bag. When she checked the plastic a few hours later, there were holes in it which were created by the larvae.

But how can wax worms eat plastic?

Wax Worms Eat Plastic, But Can They Clean Our Mess?
via Wikimedia Commons/Rasbak

Wax worms have this ability due to their intestinal microbes. They excrete glycol after they’ve finished a meal of plastics. Scientists are not sure about the use of this glycol inside their body. After conducting laboratory experiments, researchers reported that 60 of these wax worms were able to eat more than 30 square centimeters of a plastic bag in less than a week!

The bacteria 

Wax Worms Eat Plastic, But Can They Clean Our Mess?

This doesn’t mean that wax worms are the answer to the plastic problem. Researchers isolated a species of intestinal bacteria in the worms that was able to survive on plastic for more than a year as its only source of nutrition. But that didn’t work as well as letting the worms munch away on their own.

Dr. Christophe LeMoine from Brandon’s Department of Biology mentioned that there’s a synergy between the bacteria and their waxworm hosts that act as a catalyst in the plastic degradation. The Brandon University work was supported by grants from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation

Wanna know something weird?

Wax Worms Eat Plastic, But Can They Clean Our Mess?
via Wikimedia Commons/Author
Sam Droege

Wax worms are the caterpillar larvae of wax moths. When they grow into moths, they don’t eat anything. These caterpillars eat everything in their larval stage to build up enough nutrients to subsist as adults. The only purpose of adults is reproduction and staying alive till that occurs. 

The researchers also found that the worms can survive solely on polyethylene and eating that much plastic actually increases the microbes in their guts. This suggests that these bacteria love to digest plastic. Plastivores?

But can wax worms clean our mess?

Researchers believe that live wax worms won’t be practical to get rid of large-scale plastic waste removal. Each worm can create an average of 2.2 holes per hour. At that rate, it would take more than 100 worms to break down an average of 5.5 grams of plastic bag. If we do want them to rid us of plastic, we’ll need them to breed much, much more. That means we might get work waxworm visitors at our homes, ever-so-often. 

Anybody get the itch?

Other plastic loving things 

In 2014, scientist Wu and his colleagues at the Stanford University found that gut bacteria of another species of wax worm also holds the ability to break down polyethylene, even though it has different byproducts.

Another study in 2016 identified the enzymes in bacterias of some species that help in breaking down a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate. These scientists believe that there are a lot more species of worms and bacterias that can degrade plastics.

They are working with the intent to find what enzymes in the gut bacteria help caterpillars to break down plastic so easily. It can be used to formulate better ways to eliminate plastic from the environment. They hope they can develop approaches that don’t require the whole organisms but rather only their products or by-products which helps in breaking down plastic so easily.

But till they come up with a solution, we recommend going zero-plastic.

Read about the larvae running their own horror show.

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