They could help with the problem of plastic grocery bags.
Plenty of places around the globe have made plastic bags public enemy number one when it comes to addressing environmental issues—taxing bag use or trying to outlaw them all together. But what if we could just feed all of our excess plastic waste to a bunch of worms? A recently released study suggests that the idea may be more fact than fiction.
Federica Bertocchini told The Guardian she came across the idea of plastic-fighting worms while working on her hobby as an amateur beekeeper. Wax moths, whose larvae feed off beeswax, had infested her hive, so she did what any good beekeeper would: She removed the infestation and tossed the larvae in a plastic bag. “I went back to the room where I had left the worms and I found that they were everywhere,” she said. “The bag was full of holes.”
As luck would have it, Bertocchini is also a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council. With the help of a couple of researchers from the University of Cambridge, she conducted a study to see if these larvae’s ability to chew through her plastic wasn’t just a fluke. The resulting study, “Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella,” published in Current Biology, has determined that the worms may indeed “have potential for significant biotechnological applications.”
The belief is that whatever enzyme wax moth larvae use to break down beeswax may also breakdown polyethylene. The scientists proved that the worms were actually breaking down the plastic by mushing up the larvae and then putting that paste directly on the polyethylene. Again, holes appeared.
But what these researchers have not yet determined is exactly what this enzyme is. Also, though we don’t spend much time thinking about the motivation of a moth larva, if these worms themselves were to be used to breakdown plastics, the reason for their plastic bag appetite could be important. “We want to know if they’re munching the plastic to use as a food, or just because they want to escape,” said Paolo Bombelli, one of the other two researchers who helped author the paper. “If they just want to escape, they are going to get fed up very soon. But if they’re munching it to use as an energy source it’s a completely different ball game. We are not yet able to answer this, but we’re working on it.”
Even if the worms themselves aren’t utilized, isolating the enzyme could possibly allow scientists to use it in other ways, such as bioengineering plastic eating bacteria. Though whatever the method, science will have to move forward with caution: Obviously it’s great if we find a way to have worms eat through our trash, but not so great if they start coming for our lawn chairs and electronics.