Quirks & Quarks

Could these worms take care of plastic bag pollution?

A chance discovery reveals that wax worms can break down polyethelene.
This is plastic biodegraded by 10 wax worms in 30 minutes. (Cesar Hernandez/CSIC)

Wax worms are the caterpillar larvae of the wax moth and are commonly used as fishing bait. For beekeepers, however, wax worms are pests that parasitize beehives in search of honey. 

But these little pests may have a greatly-desired power: it appears they can break down plastic.

The finding began as a lucky coincidence when a beekeeper, who is also a biologist, noticed curious holes in a plastic bag she was using to cover her beehives for winter.

Wax worms in action. (University of Cambridge)

Further study by Dr. Christopher Howe from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge revealed that the holes were actually the result of the wax worms breaking down the polyethelene in the plastic bag. Although the exact process is not clear yet, researchers believe wax worms secrete an enzyme that biodegrades plastic molecules, similar to how the worm breaks down wax in beehives. 

It is hoped that a better understanding of this process will have technological applications in solving the problem of plastic pollution around the world.

Research paper in Current Biology: Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella