In Spain, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council stumbled upon a polyethylene-eating worm while removing the parasitic pests from his backyard hobby hive. Federica Bertocchini later noticed holes in the plastic bag he was using to house the worms.
Bertocchini and colleagues Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry then conducted an experiment, placing a hundred of the worms in a plastic bag. Holes started to appear after 40 minutes, and after twelve hours the bag’s mass was reduced by 92 mg. Polyethylene takes 100–400 years to biodegrade in landfills.
“If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable,” says Bombelli, lead author of the study, published recently in the journal Current Biology.
The researchers say the chemical bonds of beeswax and polyethylene are similar. “Wax is a polymer, a sort of ‘natural plastic,’ and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene,” says Bertocchini.
They add that the degradation rate is faster than other recently discovered polyethylene-degraders, such as certain bacteria. “This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans,” Bombelli adds.