SEATTLE (Waste Advantage): Plastic pollution may have met its unlikely match: the saliva of wax worms. In a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, researchers discovered that enzymes in the saliva of wax worms can readily degrade polyethylene, a common form of plastic used in bags and other packaging materials.
Wax worms, or moth larvae that live in the honeycombs of beehives, have two enzymes in their saliva that break down the plastic at room temperature within just a few hours, according to the study. The initial discovery came about as an accident in 2017, when Federica Bertocchini, a study author and amateur beekeeper, was tending to her hives.
“My beehives were plagued with wax worms, so I started cleaning them, putting the worms in a plastic bag,” Bertocchini, a molecular biologist at the Center for Biological Research in Spain, tells The Guardian’s Damian Carrington. “After a while, I noticed lots of holes, and we found it wasn’t only chewing—it was [chemical breakdown]. So that was the beginning of the story.”
Building on that realization, the new study pins down what researchers didn’t understand before: how exactly the insects accomplish this feat. The key was in the wax worms’ saliva. Their enzymes, or proteins that speed chemical reactions, allowed the insects to chemically break down the polyethylene.
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