The wax worm, the larvae of insect Galleria mellonella, is found to possess the ability to biodegrade polyethylene, which is one of the toughest and most used plastics. The scientists have observed that the degradation rate of the wax worm is extremely fast when compared to other recent discoveries. Last year, a bacteria was found to biodegrade plastics at a rate of just 0.13mg a day.
The present discovery assumes significance for getting rid of the ever increasing Polyethylene plastic waste that degrades the environment. It is estimated that a trillion plastic bags are used every single year. The plastics are highly resistant to breaking down, and even if it does the smaller pieces usually tend to choke up ecosystems without getting degraded.
The wax worms were found to transform the polyethylene into ethylene glycol. To make sure it was not just the chewing and degrading the plastic, scientists mashed up some of the worms and smeared them on polyethylene bags and got similar results as above. The molecular details of the process of breakdown could be used to come up with a biotechnological solution for managing polyethylene waste.
Wax worms are medium-white caterpillars with black-tipped feet that live as parasites in bee colonies and are commercially bred for fishing bait. They are the caterpillar larvae of wax moths. Wax moths lay their eggs inside beehives where these worms hatch and grow on beeswax. The wax worms feed on cocoons, pollen, and shed skins of bees and are considered as parasites by the beekeepers.