The solution to breaking down plastics could be spitting up worms
Big news for worm enthusiasts who hate single-use materials, the saliva of waxworms could be used to break down plastic.
The research comes from the Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas Margarita Salas (CIB-CSIC) in Spain. While studying waxworms, the team found enzymes in the spit that can degrade plastics. The enzymes belong to the phenol oxidase family and, yes, could be a breakthrough in the development of plastic waste solutions.
“For plastic to degrade, oxygen must enter the polymer (the plastic molecule),” said Dr. Federica Bertocchini.
“It is the first stage of oxidation, which usually results from exposure to sunlight or high temperatures, and represents a bottleneck that slows the degradation of plastics like polyethylene, one of the strongest polymers.
“That’s why, under normal environmental conditions, plastic takes months or even years to degrade.”
Interestingly, these enzymes were the first to be discovered with the ability to degrade polyethylene plastic by oxidizing. After only a few hours of exposure, the plastics decompose, without pre-treatment and at room temperature.
When analyzing the effect of enzymes on the polystyrene, the researchers found craters and marks in the plastic that were visible to the naked eye. This is, of course, a limited example and was done on an experimental basis, but imagine how quickly a large amount of saliva from this worm could break down the tons of plastic waste landfilled every year.
But more research will be needed. As the study’s press release adds, the mechanisms by which enzymes can degrade these plastics are still largely unknown. Further research will combine insect biology with biotechnology.
Worms are great little things, aren’t they? The saliva of plastic-destroying worms wasn’t the solution I expected to hear about for global landfill and waste management, but it could one day be instrumental in breaking down long-lived materials. .
You can read the study in Nature Communications.