Scientists have discovered that the larvae of the wax moth can easily chew through polythene, a common plastic, turning it into a useful compound found in all kinds of consumer products. The wax worm may help in the global fight to reduce and reuse the enormous amounts of plastic waste that humans produce every year.
Made from oil, plastic is the product of fossil fuels. Ninety two per cent of it all falls into two main categories: polythene and polypropylene. According to the researchers, polythene makes up about two-fifths of the plastic product demand, since it is widely used for packaging. More than a trillion plastic bags are used every year.
Only a small part of the plastic used is recycled, while some is burned for energy, which is not the best process, and a huge amount of this waste ends up in landfills.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade easily in landfills, and it can form garbage patches in the ocean which pose deadly threats to marine life.
Other processes of polythene biodegradation:
* Scientists got a liquid culture of Penicillium simplicissimum fungus to break down some polyethylene — but it took three months
* A bacterium, Nocardia asteroides, took four to seven months to do the same
Both these degradations appeared to produce ethylene glycol, a compound used in all kinds of products including paints, plastics and even cosmetics.
Wax moth, an insect that inhabits bee hives, appeared to degrade tough plastic at an incredible speed.
According to the scientists, the caterpillars are able to degrade and digest plastic at such an incredible speed because of their natural diet, since their home is the honeycomb. They assumed that the beeswax in the hives was probably chemically similar to plastic, and since the larvae had evolved to be able to break down beeswax, they could break down plastic as well. Since the beeswax is made of a wide variety of compounds, many of which are formed with carbon-carbon bonds, the wax moths have become naturally good at breaking those down.
How will they go about the biotechnological process?
So far, the scientists are unsure whether this ability is due to the wax moth larva or because of the microbes within its gut.
Scientists are considering using this as a basis for breaking down waste polythene, however there are many hurdles in the process. They are trying to find the gene for the enzyme in a biotechnological process, rather than growing large numbers of the wax worm.