Wax worms and Bioremediation
Tinsae Adamson, Jordan Anderson
Sir Charles Tupper
Floor Location : M 126 V
A Biotechnologist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini picked parasitic wax worms from the honeycomb of her beehives and left them sitting in a plastic bag. Because their diet mainly consists of wax from beehives, their adaptation that allows them to break it down also allows them to breakdown plastic. In the initial test live worms left on a commercial shopping bag for 12 hours and broke down roughly 3% of the bag. To ensure that it was not just the chewing of the worms responsible for the breakdown, worms were ground to paste and applied to the film. 14 hours later 13% of the film was gone. When the films were being cleaned, traces of Ethylene Glycol were found on the film, a sign of complete biodegradation of the polyethylene. The two potential causes for the breakdown in the worms are an enzyme, likely produced by the worm itself, or a microbe present in the worms gut.
Polyethylene in both it's low density form (LDPE), and it's high density form (HDPE) accounts for 40% of global plastic contamination, most of which is built up in Oceans and landfills. In the Northern Pacific Ocean there is 6x more plastic debris than there is plankton. This plastic can be very dangerous to marine animals, birds, and sea turtles that can mistake plastic for food. This causes over 100,000 deaths per year. LDPE, the more common of the two types of polyethylene takes up to 500,000 years to breakdown naturally. The wax worms may hold the key within them to cleaning up the massive amounts of waste we have buried ourselves under.
Federica Bertocchini's experiment saw the worms break down plastic at record-breaking speeds, and while it was sure that the worms were responsible it was unknown what function within them broke down the plastic. The purpose of our experiment was to better understand and potentially identify what that function was. In the end we were able to make predictions based on our data of what allows wax worms to break down plastics.