05 October, 2022 | 02:30 AM
The Solution to Breaking Down Plastics Could Be Worm Spit
In big news for worm enthusiasts that hate single-use materials, the saliva from wax worms could be used to break down plastic. The research comes from Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas Margarita Salas (CIB-CSIC) in Spain. When studying wax worms, the team found enzymes within the spit that can degrade plastics. The enzymes belong to the phenol oxidase family and, yes, could be a breakthrough in developing plastic waste solutions. “For plastic to degrade, oxygen must penetrate the polymer (the plastic molecule),” said doctor Federica Bertocchini. “This is the first step in oxidation, which is usually a result of exposure to sunlight or high temperatures, and represents a bottleneck that slows down the degradation of plastics like polyethylene, one of the most resistant polymers. “That is why, under normal environmental conditions, plastic takes months or even years to degrade.” Interestingly, these enzymes are the first to be discovered with the ability to degrade polyethylene plastic by oxidizing. After just a few hours of exposure, the plastics break down, without pre-treatment and while at room temperature. When analysing the effect of the enzymes on polystyrene, researchers found craters and marks in the plastic which were visible to the naked eye. This is, of course, a limited example and was performed as an experiment, but imagine how quickly a large amount of this worm saliva could break down the tonnes of plastic waste that goes into landfill every year . But more research will be required. As the press release for the study adds, the mechanisms by which the enzymes can degrade these plastics are still largely unknown. Further research will combine insect biology with biotechnology. Worms are funky little things, aren’t they? plastic-destroying worm saliva wasn’t the solution I was expecting to hear about for global landfill and waste management, but it could one day be instrumental in breaking down long-life materials. You can read the study in Nature Communications .