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A Worm’s Gut Could Help Dispose of Plastic Trash

Microbes found in the guts of waxworms like to feast on polyethylene

(Photo: Jon Hicks/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Waxworms get their name from their preferred living situation—as parasites in bee colonies, where they munch their way through their hosts' waxy hive. Their unusual diet extends beyond wax, however. When they live close to humans, they will also nibble on packaging. 

Researchers from Beihang University and Stanford University decided to investigate how the worms manage to maintain their peculiar eating habits. The researchers suspected that, like cows that use microbes living in their rumens to digest grass, the worms might also have a mutually beneficial arrangement with bacteria.

Their hunch proved right: the researchers found that two types of bacteria living inside the worm—Enterobacter asburiae and Bacillus sp. YP1—happily munch their way through polyethylene films, even when isolated from their invertebrate host. Over a 60 day period, the two bacterial colonies degraded about 6 percent and 10 percent of a 100 mg piece of plastic, respectively. 

Polyethylene is considered non-biodegradable and is also the most pervasive type of plastic around. The bacteria, however, hint at the possibility of finding a natural way to degrade that pervasive pollutant. As the researchers write, the results "provided promising evidence for the biodegradation of [polyethylene] in the environment."

But given the incredible amount of plastic pollution that's already around (and doesn't seem to be naturally biodegrading), it's probably easier and more effective to just limit the amount of polyethylene plastic littering the planet in the first place. 

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