Five years ago, Federica Bertocchini was cleaning out her beehives at home in Santander in Northern Spain, including sweeping out wax worms — common pests that eat into honeycombs.
Shortly after, the biologist at the Instituto de Biomedicina y Biotecnología de Cantabria noticed that holes were forming in the plastic bags where she had put the squirmy little critters.
In that incident, Bertocchini had unintentionally come upon a discovery that could someday address one of the greatest dilemmas of modern living.
"We have found that the larva of a common insect, Galleria mellonella, is able to biodegrade one of the toughest, most resilient, and most used plastics: polyethylene," said Bertocchini, who published her research on April 24 in Current Biology with co-authors Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe of Cambridge University.
Notably, advancing other recent research that found that some bacteria can break down plastic bottles and meal worms can consume Styrofoam, wax worms can eat plastic bags quickly, the researchers found. Very quickly.
Whereas mealworms eat Styrofoam at a rate of 0.13 milligrams per square centimeter per hour, the wax worms degrade plastic bags at 0.23 milligrams at the same rate, said Bertocchini.
“If you put the worm into the plastic bag, in 20 minutes it comes out,” said Bertocchini. “The timing is just so fast.”