A caterpillar whose previous use by humans has been confined to the end of a fish hook could now be used to help break down the copious amounts of plastic inundating our planet, according to new research. Scientists have discovered that the wax worm, so named for its ability to chow down on beeswax, can also feed on another waxy substance—plastics. The NYT reports:
Scientists discovered that the wax worm…is able to break down the chemical bonds in polyethylene, a synthetic polymer and widely produced plastic used in packaging, bags and other everyday materials.
Researchers still aren’t sure how this is actually happening. To test whether or not these worms were actually dissolving the plastic, rather than simply breaking it down into smaller constituent parts, scientists ground up the insect and spread it on plastic. They discovered that there’s a chemical reaction underway, but the precise mechanism by which this is happening remains a mystery:
“We think that it’s some enzyme that’s involved,” [said the University of Cambridge’s Christopher J. Howe]. “We don’t know if it’s actually produced by the worms or actually is produced by bacteria in the gut of the worms.”
That mystery enzyme or enzymes is breaking the long chain of carbon atoms at the center of the plastic into smaller containing molecules, Mr. Howe said. And while the researchers are not yet sure what those smaller molecules are, it is likely that they will be easier to recycle and reuse than the plastic from which they came.
Like most scientific discoveries, this new use for wax worms will need to undergo further study and testing before it can be deployed as an actual tool for recycling plastic. That said, this is yet another example of our continuing refinement of our understanding of the natural world, and the positive benefits this kind of research can produce.
We’ve pushed past the point of wonder in most natural sciences, and it seems like new research is generally focused on doom-and-gloom scenarios about how humanity is stretching the carrying capacity of our planet, or changing the climate in which we live. Those scientific endeavors are vitally important (if often overstated), but they can lead people to believe we are helpless in the face of these massive environmental problems. That’s not the case—humans are, if nothing else, problem solvers—and there are going to be countless more breakthroughs like this one that will give us tools to face the difficulties that lie ahead.