Can Worm Gut Bacteria Solve Plastic Waste Problem?

wax worms

by | Dec 9, 2014

wax wormsBacteria from the guts of a worm known to munch on food packaging can degrade polyethylene, the most common plastic, according to research reported in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The scientists say the finding could lead to new ways to help get rid of the otherwise persistent waste, well-known for sticking around in the environment for years without breaking down, contributing to litter and landfills.

Jun Yang and colleagues point out that the global plastics industry churns out about 140 million tons of polyethylene every year. Much of it goes into the bags, bottles and boxes that are used regularly — and then throw out. Scientists have been trying to figure out for years how to make this plastic trash go away. Some of the most recent studies have tried siccing bacteria on plastic to degrade it, but these required first exposing the plastic to light or heat. Yang’s team wanted to find bacteria that could degrade polyethylene in one step.

The researchers turned to a plastic-eating moth larva, known as a waxworm. They found that at least two strains of the waxworm’s gut microbes could degrade polyethylene without a pretreatment step. They say the results point toward a new, more direct way to biodegrade plastic.

The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Basic Research Program of China and the Shenzhen Key Laboratory of Bioenergy.

In efforts to produce more sustainable plastic, the global biobased plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) market is expected to reach 5,800 kilo tons by 2020, up from 650 kilo tons in 2013, — for a CAGR of 40.9 percent from 2014 to 2020 — according to a study by Grand View Research published earlier this month.

Photo Credit: American Chemical Society


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