Ways to save the world: wax worm saliva

Want to feel good about the environment? Ways To Save The World is here to show you ideas and innovations that are changing climate for the better

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Want to feel good about the environment? Ways To Save The World is here to show you ideas and innovations that are changing climate for the better

By Rhys Thomas26 Oct 2022
4 mins read time
4 mins read time

Insects are crazy. For instance, in a tablespoon of soil there’s more living organisms than there are people on planet earth. These bugs are essential for life as we know it. Some insects always have been, and some we’re finding out, might very well soon be. Like wax worms, a type of moth larva that infests beehives, which might be the answer to many of the planet’s plastic problems.

What’s so special about this then?

The wax worm’s saliva contains two enzymes that can degrade (fancy word for dissolve or decompose) polyethylene, a solid but flexible plastic. Significantly, it’s also the most commonly produced plastic in the world right now, accounting for about 30% of plastic worldwide. It’s used in everything from squeezy bottles to bin bags. If there’s a bit of flexibility in your plastic, chances are there’s polyethylene involved.

How on earth did we make this discovery? / How did we find out that wax worms can dissolve plastic?

As with many great things, we figured this out by chance. An amateur beekeeper (who also happens to be a professional scientist) was cleaning out a hive infested with the larvae. They had put them into a plastic refuse bag, only to find the bugs started eating the bag, leaving holes everywhere. They were curious as to how an insect could seemingly eat plastic, and found those two very interesting enzymes were dissolving the plastic. Zero waste. “To our knowledge, no such enzyme has been identified” before, academics subsequently wrote in academic journal Nature.com.

How will this save the world?

Well, if scientists can figure out a way to synthetically create the two specific enzymes that break down the plastic, it could pave the way for allowing us to break down loads of waste quicker than previously, and on a mass scale. If that happens, it’ll become one of the first super plausible ways to ‘chemically recycle’.

Chemical recycling is among the hottest new ideas in the waste management industry (the proper one, not like, Tony Soprano). It aims to be a solution for breaking down materials that are very hard to break down physically, such as most plastics, which can actually take thousands of years to decompose. Hence why we have a lot of plastic pollution in the world. It’s linked to biodegrading. Research even suggests that the wax worm’s saliva could take us from thousands of years of decomposition to hours. Planet-saving drip, for real, then.

How can I get involved?

There’s actually a few ways in which you can help save the world with wax worms. Let’s break it down (like they do with plastic):

Beekeepers currently see wax worms as pests, so perhaps mention your newfound knowledge to any beekeepers you know, and hope they give their pest some plastic to decompose when they’re next cleaning them out of hives

You can also breed wax worms pretty easily, if you want! Check that video we posted above.

Knowledge is power. Now you’re a pro on wax worms, perhaps look into how Queensland scientists have discovered that fellow bug Zophobas morio (a type of beetle larvae commonly known as a super-worm, ooo) can actually survive solely eating polystyrene. Or perhaps how in 2012, students from Yale University discovered that a rare species of mushroom, the Pestalotiopsis microspora, can also decompose plastic rapid. Usefully this shroom can also grow without oxygen, so in theory, if people could put the spores (think of them a bit like seeds) of a mushroom at the bottom of a landfill, it could just slowly munch the whole thing away. That’s change from the bottom up!

That aside, trying to use less plastic is always a great idea (think owning a lovely tote bag or a reusable water bottle).