By: April Carson
The saliva of wax worms, which are moth larvae that infest beehives, contains enzymes that rapidly break down plastic bags.
These enzymes are the first that have been reported to break down polyethylene at room temperature within hours, which could soon lead to recycling plastic in a cost-effective way.
After an amateur beekeeper found that the larvae in one of his infested hives were eating holes in a plastic refuse bag, the researchers said that their study showed insect saliva may be “a depository of degrading enzymes which could revolutionise [the cleanup of polluting waste.”
A whopping 30% of all plastic production consists of polyethylene, which is often used in packaging like bags that end up polluting the environment. The only type of recycling that happens on a large scale today uses mechanical processes and results in lower-quality products.
The chemical breakdown could create either valuable chemicals or new plastic, with additional processing. This would avoid the necessity for brand-new virgin plastic made from oil. The enzymes required can be easily synthesized and would help to overcome a bottleneck in plastic degradation- typically known as the initial breaking of polymer chains. However, this usually requires excessive heating. Enzymes present an alternative solution that work under normal temperatures instead, in water and at neutral pH levels.
The use of enzymes to break down plastic is not a new concept. In fact, it’s been around for over 50 years. However, the application has been limited due to the cost and efficiency of enzymes.
Dr Federica Bertocchini at the Biological Research Centre in Madrid stated, “I was cleaning my beehives when I noticed they were full of wax worms. I started putting them in a plastic bag, but then I realized they were eating their way out. We did some research and found that not only were they chewing through the plastic, but breaking it down chemically."
The researchers say that it is still early days in terms of commercial application. “We need to do a lot of research and think about how to develop this new strategy to deal with plastic waste,” said Dr Clemente Arias, also at the Spanish research centre.
The scientists said that, in addition to large recycling plants, it might one day be possible to have kits at home to recycle plastic bags into useful products. Currently, other scientists are investigating beetles and butterfly larvae for their potential ability eat plastics.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that insects could be key to helping us tackle the plastic pollution problem. In 2018, a study found that waxworms – the caterpillars of the greater wax moth – are able to eat and break down polyethylene, which is the type of plastic used in shopping bags.
Research shows that enzymes found in bacteria are capable of breaking down plastic. In 2021, a study discovered 30,000 different enzymes in microbes that could degrade 10 types of plastic. These findings were made by observing bacteria in oceans and soils from all over the world.
A newly discovered enzyme that can rapidly degrade plastic beverage bottles was revealed in 2020. This super-enzyme was found inspiration from a bug located in a Japanese landfill and then accidentally further enhanced for potency. Another similar enzyme has also been produced from bacteria found in leaf compost, while yet another different type of bug living in landfills eats polyurethane - a commonly used but rarely recycled plastic.
Millions of tonnes of plastic are carelessly dumped each year, and the pollution is scattered across the planet - from Mount Everest to the depths of the oceans. It's crucial that we use less plastic and recycle what we can to prevent further production of this harmful material.
While it's encouraging that some companies are working on ways to break down plastic, we must remember that the best way to reduce pollution is to prevent it in the first place. We can do this by reducing our reliance on single-use plastics and recycling the plastics we do use.
The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, found 200 proteins in wax worm saliva that could be used to break down plastic. The two enzymes that were most effective at breaking down plastic were identified and further studied. According to the researchers, this discovery "suggests insect saliva might [be] a depository of degrading enzymes which could revolutionise the bioremediation field."
The researchers say that their findings could lead to the development of new, more effective methods of breaking down plastic pollution. In the meantime, we can all do our part to reduce plastic pollution by recycling and avoiding single-use plastics.
Scientists aren't exactly sure why waxworm larvae have evolved enzymes that break down plastic. However, they believe it might be because the larvae live in honeycombs and feed on beeswax. Another possibility is that the enzymes help break down toxic chemicals produced by plants (which are similar to some additives found in plastics).
A study published on Tuesday in the journal Chem showed that creating a mirror-image version of a plastic-degrading enzyme means it is much more resistant to breaking down. However, Pickford said: “The high expense of chemically synthesising mirror-image enzymes is likely to far outweigh any modest benefit from an enhanced enzyme half-life.”
The team now wants to improve the enzyme even further so it can be used commercially to break down plastics in an industrial setting.
“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” said Professor McGeehan. “Although luck played a big part, the application of cutting-edge technology allowed us to see that this was a particularly stable enzyme, which is an exciting prospect in itself.”
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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