When she’s not working in her lab at Spain’s IBBTEC institute, Federica Bertocchini keeps bees. One day, when she looked at her hives, she found them infested with caterpillars called waxworms. These insects are the bane of beekeepers because they voraciously devour the wax that bees use to build their honeycombs. Bertocchini picked out the pests and put them in a plastic bag, while she cleaned out the hives. And when she returned to the bag, she found it full of holes.
The waxworms had eaten their way out.
Bertocchini doesn’t study insects, waxworms, or plastic—she focuses on the early development of animal embryos. But you can’t keep a good scientist away from an interesting question, and the perforated bags posed an obvious one: Were the waxworms actually digesting the plastic?
Plastics make for good packaging—and even better pollutants—because they are so hard to degrade. They’re very long chain-like molecules with lots of powerful carbon-to-carbon bonds, which can’t be easily broken by bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that normally decay organic matter. So when plastic enters the environment, it usually stays there.
Other scientists have also discovered plastic-busting species, including various fungi and bacteria. Last year, a Japanese team identified a previously unknown bacterium that can degrade PET. And in 2014, Chinese scientists suggested that two species of bacteria from the guts of Indian mealmoths, a type of waxworm, can degrade polyethylene (PE)—the world’s most common plastics.