It is no secret, our Earth is a pretty messy place nowadays.
According to the UNEP, which is the global authority on environmental issues, humans generate an astonishing amount of plastic waste. A staggering 300 million tons of it, actually. The United States alone produces nearly 254 million tons of waste each year. That’s enough to reach the moon and back 25 times. This waste then winds up all over the world, and instead of being recycled or repurposed a large percentage of it winds up in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
But there may be a way to help fight back against this pollution issue. And the solution? A common pest called a wax worm. But just how can these small insects help? First we need to learn a little bit more about just what wax worms are, before jumping in to just how they can help us.
What Exactly Are Waxworms?
Wax worms, or galleria mellonella as they go by in the scientific community, are primarily viewed as pests and parasites. Most commonly found in beehives adult moths lay their eggs which in turn hatch and devour everything in sight. Then the newly hatched larvae burrow out of the hive to escape. Then they leave silk-lined tunnels behind which strangle emerging honeybee larvae and destroy the structure of the combs themselves.
This destructiveness means beekeepers have to be on avid lookout to prevent infestations of wax worms. In fact, the initial discovery that wax worms could even eat plastic was made by research scientist Frederica Bertocchini almost at random. While attempting to rid an infestation of wax worms from her own beehives, which she tends to as a hobby, Frederica threw the eggs into a plastic bag. When she later went to dispose of the bags, she discovered multiple holes had been eaten through the plastic and a thriving colony of freshly hatched wax worms happily munching away.
How Do Waxworms Break Down Plastic Waste?
But how is it that waxworms can not only chew through plastic, but actually convert the waste into energy? This is due to the fact that polyethylene, the main compound in plastic, is surprisingly similar in make up to the mixture of lipid compounds making up beeswax. So while not exactly the same, the body of the waxworm seems almost pre-built to break down the near-identical compound make-up. Thus, resulting in the ability to ingest and make use of plastic itself.
A secondary study was performed to discover just how much plastic waste waxworms could break down. In this study scientists Chrisopher Howe and Paolo Bombelli took larvae to their lab and introduced them to a film made up of polyethylene. They then watched as the tiny worms began to eat away at the flim. In the end their results showed that in just twelve hours 100 worms consumed a total of 92 milligrams of material. This may not seem like a lot, but could it be the breakthrough needed to help reduce plastic waste?
How Realistic Is Using Wax Worms To Help With the Plastic Problem?
The results of the original experiments into how much plastic waxworms consume does not seem all that impressive on paper. In an hour, even a large amount of these worms could only consume about a matchbook’s size in plastic.
What is important is the possibility it brings to the table. If scientists were able to determine how a waxworm’s physiology and unique gut bacteria work, they could in turn create ways to mirror their ability to ingest plastic and convert it into energy. As study leader Christopher Howe puts it, “Nature is providing us with a great starting point to model how to effectively biodegrade plastic. But we still have a few more puzzles to solve before using this technology. So it’s probably best to keep reducing plastic waste while this gets figured out.”
So, that is the goal ahead for scientists. Through careful study, they can possibly figure out how waxworms work. And in turn figure out their place in helping humanity reduce our waste problem. Does that mean these little worms may be able to save the world? It is possible!
In the end, whatever we as humanity do to solve the plastic waste problem is going to have to include multiple factors and involve a great number of industries. Part of this solution could very well include wax worms, similar ‘pest’ species, or other biochemical solutions. Thus why exploration and discovery into this field is critical.
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