Eco-friendly worms

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Solving the world’s plastic problem with waxworms. 

Forty percent of the world’s plastic production, or 80 million tonnes, comes from polyethylene, a chemical compound that is extremely difficult to break down. In Europe, only 26% of plastic is recycled.

Could the solution to this environmental problem lie in the digestive tract of a worm? Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain, was discarding beehive-infesting worms in plastic bags when she accidentally discovered that the larva of the greater wax moth can digest plastic. She figured out that the worm breaks polyethylene down into ethylene glycol, which can be converted into antifreeze or other useful products.

An intensive culture of waxworms is not planned, however. “We hope to discover what molecule is responsible for the biodegradation so that we can reproduce the mechanism on an industrial scale”, Bertocchini explains.

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