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Headlines in the media screaming: Humans dump 8 million tonnes of plastics into the oceans each year. That's five grocery bags of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.
Plastic, plastic, plastic and harmful plastic everywhere on this planet. How can we get rid of it?
The question that has been eating our brains since plastic came into existence in our lives, has found an answer in plastic consuming worms.
In the study 100 mealworms were used and they ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam. This is about the weight of a small pill per day. The worms converted about half of the styrofoam into carbon dioxide, as they would with any food source.
Within 24 hours, they excreted the bulk of the remaining plastic as biodegraded fragments that look similar to tiny rabbit droppings. Mealworms fed on a steady diet of styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet, Wu said, and their waste appeared to be safe to use as soil for crops.
The insect is able to quickly biodegrade polyethylene, the plastic used for shopping bags and food packaging
A research scientist at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Federica Bertocchini, has discovered that wax worms (Galleria mellonella), which usually feed on honey and wax from the honeycombs of bees, are capable of degrading plastic. This worm is capable of biodegrading polyethylene, one of the toughest plastic materials that exists, and which is used to make shopping bags and food packaging, amongst other things. The discovery has been patented by the research scientists. The CSIC scientist worked on this research with Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe from the University of Cambridge. The paper has been published in the journal Current Biology.
Every year, around 80 million tonnes of polyethylene, a material which is extremely tough and difficult to degrade, are produced around the world. For example, low-density polyethylene plastic bags, take around 100 years to decompose completely, with the toughest, most resistant ones taking up to 400 years to break down. Every year, the average person uses more than 230 plastic bags, generating more than 100,000 tons of this type of plastic waste.
Currently, the very long processes of chemical degradation, which require the use of corrosive liquids such as nitric acid can take up to several months. This is the first time that a scientific research team has found a natural solution which has proven itself capable of degrading this material. "Plastic is a global problem. Nowadays waste can be found everywhere, including in rivers and oceans. Polyethylene in particular is very resistant, and as such is very difficult to degrade naturally".
These scientists have carried out many experiments to test the efficacy of these worms in biodegrading polyethylene. 100 wax worms are capable of biodegrading 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours, which really is very fast , they found after the tests. Following the larva phase, the worm wraps itself in a whitish-coloured cocoon or chrysalis. The researchers also discovered that by simply having the cocoon in contact with polyethylene, the plastic biodegrades.
The composition of beeswax is similar to that of polyethylene. According to the researchers, this may be the reason why the worm has developed a mechanism to dispose of this type of plastic. "We still don't know the details of how this biodegradation occurs, but there is a possibility that an enzyme is responsible. The next step is to detect, isolate, and produce this enzyme in vitro on an industrial scale. In this way, we can begin to successfully eliminate this highly resistant material", explain the researchers.
A chance discovery
The scientist, who is also an amateur beekeeper, discovered this attribute of wax worms quite by chance. One day she discovered that the honeycomb panels stored in her house were covered with worms which were feeding on the leftover honey and wax from her bees.
"I removed the worms, and put them in a plastic bag while I cleaned the panels. After finishing, I went back to the room where I had left the worms and I found that they were everywhere. They had escaped from the bag even though it had been closed and when I checked, I saw that the bag was full of holes. There was only one explanation: the worms had made the holes and had escaped. This project began there and then", says the CSIC scientist.
The wax worm
The wax worm, also known as the honey worm, is a lepidopteran insect which can reach three centimeters in length in its larval phase and can be found anywhere in the world. They feed on honey and wax in beehives, where they also find a suitable temperature for their development.
Wax worm larvae have a life expectancy of between six and seven weeks at an optimal temperature for growth of 28 to 34 degrees Celsius. The larvae produce silk and make a cocoon in which they will go through their last metamorphosis: their conversion into moths.
Researchers have discovered world's first polyethylene-eating bacterium
A tiny microbe one day could devour the millions of metric tons of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, that pile up in landfills each year. Researchers in Japan have discovered the world’s first PET-eating bacterium, a critter that uses PET as its major carbon and energy source.
To find microbes that could pull PET apart, a team led by Kohei Oda of Kyoto Institute of Technology and Kenji Miyamoto of Keio University screened 250 sediment, soil, wastewater, and activated sludge samples from a PET bottle recycling facility in Sakai, Japan. After some careful microbial sleuthing, they found one bacterium that thrived on PET films and named it Ideonella sakaiensis after the city where it was found (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6359).
Bacteria isolated from outside a bottle-recycling facility can break down and metabolize plastic. The proliferation of plastics in consumer products, from bottles to clothing, has resulted in the release of countless tons of plastics into the environment. Yoshida et al. show how the biodegradation of plastics by specialized bacteria could be a viable bioremediation strategy (see the Perspective by Bornscheuer). The new species, Ideonella sakaiensis, breaks down the plastic by using two enzymes to hydrolyze PET and a primary reaction intermediate, eventually yielding basic building blocks for growth.
A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate) : http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6278/1196
PET can be hydrolyzed to its monomers chemically, but this process can be slow and usually requires high temperatures and pressures. Fungi that can break down PET have been identified previously, but the bacterium identified by Oda and Miyamoto’s group appears to be more efficient than these. In fact, I. sakaiensis dices up polymer at a surprisingly mild 30 °C.
Plastic Eating Fungi
Researchers in China and the US have developed a method to convert plastic waste into useful liquid fuels or chemical feedstocks. The research was published in Science Advances.
Efficient and selective degradation of polyethylenes into liquid fuels and waxes under mild conditions