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Pollution from plastic bags may finally have met its match in the face of the moth larvae that infest beehives, also known as waxworms.
Scientists have discovered that enzymes in the worms’ saliva quickly break down polyethylene – the world’s most widely used plastic and a major cause of pollution.
They found that two substances in the saliva break down the plastic within hours at room temperature.
Experts hope the breakthrough will lead to new natural and cost-effective ways to tackle plastic pollution.
The discovery came after a scientist, an amateur beekeeper, cleaned an infected beehive and found that the larvae had started eating holes in a plastic bag.
The study builds on the researchers’ findings from 2017 that wax worms — which were food made by bees to build honeycombs — were able to break down polyethylene, although it was unclear at the time how these tiny insects did that. did.
The answer was enzymes – substances produced by living organisms that trigger biochemical reactions.
Discovery: Enzymes that quickly break down plastic bags have been found in the saliva of waxworms (pictured), scientists say
WHAT ARE WAXWORMS?
Wax moths lay their eggs in beehives.
The worms hatch and grow on beeswax, which is composed of a very diverse mixture of lipid compounds.
While waxworms wouldn’t normally eat plastic, the researchers suspect their ability is a byproduct of their natural habits.
It is likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds.
Researchers said their study showed that insect saliva “may be a repository of disruptive enzymes that can revolutionize” [the cleanup of polluting waste]’.
To break down plastic, oxygen must enter the polymer — or plastic molecule — in an important first step called oxidation. The researchers found that the enzymes completed this step within hours without the need for any pretreatment, such as applying heat or radiation.
This “changes the paradigm of plastic biodegradation,” says molecular biologist Federica Bertocchini of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), who led the study.
Plastic is made from polymers designed to be hard to break down and contains additives that increase durability, meaning it can remain intact for years, decades or centuries.
“The same properties that make plastic the unique and useful material it is create one of the most critical problems of this century,” Bertocchini said.
‘Plastics remain in the environment for a long time. It eventually breaks down into small particles and thus becomes the source of micro- and nanoplastic particles.
“These plastic particles have been found everywhere from Antarctica to rainwater and tap water, causing not only obvious environmental problems but also a growing problem for human health.”
Polyethylene, first made in 1933, is inexpensive, durable and does not interact with food, making it useful for food packaging and shopping bags, among other things.
Waxworms are the larvae of wax moths, a species called Galleria mellonella. The caterpillars are considered pests by beekeepers and feed on beeswax, pollen and honey, and sometimes eat bee larvae as well.
The idea would be to synthetically produce the worms’ salivary enzymes, which the researchers have succeeded in doing, to break down plastic waste. Bertocchini said using billions of waxworms to do the job has drawbacks, including generating carbon dioxide as they metabolize the polyethylene.
Humble: Waxworms are the larvae of wax moths, a species called Galleria mellonella
“In our case, the enzymes oxidize plastic and break it down into small molecules,” said study co-author Clemente Fernandez Arias, an ecologist and mathematician at CSIC.
“This suggests alternative scenarios for dealing with plastic waste in which plastic can degrade under controlled conditions, limiting the release of microplastics or eventually eliminating them altogether.”
A foundation related to the German plastic engineering company Röchling helped fund the research.
Bertocchini is one of the two leaders of a Madrid-based company called Plasticentropy that is working to commercialize the use of the enzymes to break down plastic waste.
The pursuit of biodegradation of plastic, or biodegradation, was previously mainly aimed at micro-organisms.
A handful of microorganisms have been found to break down plastic, but this slows down and requires pre-treatment, complicating its use.
Plastic consumption has skyrocketed worldwide over the past three decades, with hundreds of millions of tons ending up as waste each year and less than 10 percent of that being recycled.
The United Nations approved a landmark agreement in March to create the world’s first global plastic pollution treaty after talks in Nairobi, aiming to reach a legally binding deal by 2024.
The research is published in the journal nature communication.
DEEP-SEA DEBRIS DATABASE REVEALS THE LEVEL OF PLASTIC POLLUTION OF THE OCEAN
Plastic pollution is a scourge that plagues the surface of our planet. Now the polluting polymer is sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
The deepest part of the ocean is found in the Mariana Trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean, east of the Marianas. It extends nearly 36,100 feet (11,000 meters) below the surface.
A plastic bag was found 35,754 feet (10,898 meters) below the surface in this region, the deepest known piece of man-made pollution in the world. This single-use piece of plastic was found deeper than 33 Eiffel Towers, laid point to point, would reach.
While plastic pollution is rapidly sinking, it is also expanding further into the middle of the oceans. A piece of plastic was found more than 620 miles (1,000 km) from the nearest coast – that’s further than the length of France.
The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (Jamstec) Global Oceanographic Data Center (Godac) was launched for public use in March 2017.
This database contains the data from 5,010 different dives. From all these different dives, 3,425 man-made debris items were counted.
More than 33 percent of the waste was macroplastic, followed by metal (26 percent), rubber (1.8 percent), fishing gear (1.7 percent), glass (1.4 percent), cloth/paper/wood (1. 3 percent). percent) and ‘other’ anthropogenic items (35 percent).
It was also discovered that 89 percent of all waste found was intended for single use. This is defined as plastic bags, bottles and packaging. The deeper the study looked, the greater the amount of plastic they found.
Of all man-made objects found deeper than 6,000 meters, the proportions rose to 52 percent for macroplastics and 92 percent for single-use plastics.
The direct damage this caused to the ecosystem and environment can be clearly seen, as deep-sea organisms were seen in the 17 percent of the plastic waste images captured by the study.