The enzymes present in the saliva of the larvae can quickly degrade one of the most used plastics in the world, which opens a way to fight against this form of contamination, according to a study published on Tuesday.
Of the 400 million tons of plastics produced each year according to OECD estimates, about a third are polyethylene. Derived from petrochemical products, simple and cheap to manufacture, they are used especially for packaging.
The UN, which qualifies plastic pollution as a global scourge, recently began negotiations for the development of an international treaty to reduce this phenomenon.
The fact that certain enzymes can attack plastic materials has already been documented, but over long periods of time.
However, according to the work of a team of Spanish researchers, published in Nature Communications, two enzymes present in the saliva of wax moth larvae (galleria mellonella) attack polyethylene in just a few hours at room temperature.
Federica Bertocchini, from the Margarita Salas Center for Biological Studies in Madrid, the main author of the study and an amateur beekeeper, explained that she had the idea for this research by cleaning beehives stored for the winter and whose wax combs had been colonized by these larvae.
After cleaning the hives, he put the larvae in a plastic bag and soon discovered that it was “full of holes”.
“The question was, do they (the larvae) eat it or is there a chemical process? We checked in the lab and found that the polyethylene had oxidized,” she told AFP.
Not quite on point
Many additional studies and experiments will be needed to fully understand the process before considering a concrete application of the discovery, the researchers say.
But Federica Bertocchini is already imagining different avenues of use against plastic pollution.
“The enzymes could be integrated into a liquid solution and poured onto plastic at the recycling center,” or used in isolated places where collection or recycling is difficult, or even eventually in individual households to degrade their own waste.