The Lowly Wax Worm May Hold The Key To Biodegrading Plastic : The Two-Way More than a trillion plastic bags are used annually. They're made of a notoriously resilient kind of plastic called polyethylene – but scientists have found that wax worms are able to break them down.
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The Lowly Wax Worm May Hold The Key To Biodegrading Plastic

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The Lowly Wax Worm May Hold The Key To Biodegrading Plastic

The Lowly Wax Worm May Hold The Key To Biodegrading Plastic

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Wax worms can make a mess of things, especially in beehives where they eat the wax. Two years ago, a Spanish scientists and beekeeper made the connection between this type of caterpillar and another substance - plastic.

CHRISTOPHER HOWE: She'd got some beehive material that she'd stored in plastic bags, and she discovered that actually the wax worms had managed to break out of the plastic bag.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's Christopher Howe of the University of Cambridge. He was part of a team that tested the caterpillar's ability to take on plastic. They published the results yesterday in the journal Current Biology. The scientists exposed hundreds of wax worms to a plastic bag, and in less than an hour, holes appeared.

HOWE: Then of course could just be that they're physically chewing the bags to pieces. And what we needed to do was to see if some kind of extract from the wax worms would work as well.

CORNISH: That extract was a very unpleasant sounding mush.

HOWE: A puree of wax worm.

CORNISH: This soup of dead caterpillars also ate through plastic.

HOWE: It had to be something chemical that was going on and not a physical breakdown.

SHAPIRO: So it would be wrong to say that these caterpillars are eating plastic. But after contact with wax worms, some of the plastic was converted into ethylene glycol, a sign that it had been degraded. Another study will examine more closely what's going on.

CORNISH: But don't count on these little creatures to solve the worldwide glut of plastic waste. In fact, when wax worms interact with plastic, they may release nasty byproducts, toxins released into the atmosphere. Some scientists are skeptical about how this study might be used. Michigan State University Professor Susan Selke has doubts about its application to the plastic problem.

SUSAN SELKE: It's a long way from discovering something that can biodegrade to polyethylene to creating a system where that biodegradation serves a useful purpose.

SHAPIRO: Selke says if you bother to collect a massive pile of plastic bags, don't wait for science to figure out anytime soon whether wax worms can make that pile disappear. Go ahead and recycle.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON TRIO'S "EVERY TIME WE SAY GOODBYE")

SHAPIRO: And now we have some news about this program that we want to share with you. Our friend and colleague Robert Siegel, host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for more than 30 years, announced his retirement plans today.

CORNISH: But don't worry. You have some time to say goodbye. Robert will continue to be in the host rotation through the end of this year.

SHAPIRO: Congratulations, Robert. We have both learned so much from you. And while I know you're looking forward to the next phase, we are all glad that you're not leaving right away.

CORNISH: In fact, don't get too comfortable because we look forward to having you back here on air on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON TRIO'S "EVERY TIME WE SAY GOODBYE")

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