Federica Bertocchini, researcher at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria,discovered this peculiarity by chance and thanks to his love of beekeeping. Thus, when he saw one day that his combs were full of worms, he decided to remove them and place them in a plastic bag from which, shortly after, the insects had escaped.“I checked that the bag was full of holes. There was only one explanation: the worms had made them and they had escaped out there. At that time, this project began ".
After the discovery, and in coordination with Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe, researchers from the University of Cambridge, they began experiments to verify the effectiveness of wax worms to degrade polyethylene. And it turned out that it was a lot:a hundred worms break down up to 92 milligrams of this plastic in just 12 hours as common as it is resistant. "It's really very fast.", values Bertocchini.
During the investigation it has also been found that the cocoons themselves degrade the polyethylene through contact, so nowthey are trying to find out the reasons for this quality which, initially, they attribute to the similarity of the composition of wax and polyethylene.“We still do not know the details of how biodegradation occurs, but there is a possibility that an enzyme does. The next step is to detect it, isolate it, and produce it in vitro on an industrial scale. So we can begin to effectively eliminate this resistant material ".
As the researcher advances, the worms could offer an alternative to eliminate these remains, something that until now has been done with long degradation processes that require the use of corrosive acids. Faced with them, this response of nature can contribute to curbing polyethylene waste, amaterial from which 80 million tons are produced annually, many of them for plastic bags. It is estimated that each of us uses about 230 per year. Do you know how long each of them takes to degrade? Up to 100 years those that are made with low intensity polyethylene and four centuries in the case of the densest bags.
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Photo: © César Hernández / CSIC