Federica Bertocchini of the Cantabrian Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Spain, and her colleagues from the Spanish-British scientific group, recently discovered that the larvae of the bees ( Galleria mellonella ) are capable of efficiently decomposing polyethylene, which accounts for 40% of all plastic production. Upon examination of the damaged polyethylene film during the experiment, the group detected traces of ethylene glycol, a product of decomposition of polyethylene, which confirms the fact of biodegradation. The researchers described their results in detail in an article published in the journal Current Biology.
Mankind annually produces more than 300 million tons of plastics. About half of them eventually end up in landfills, and up to 12 million tons into the ocean. There is no reliable way to get rid of them yet, but the results of the new study suggest that this method is hidden in the stomachs of some hungry larvae.
To test the abilities of Galleria mellonella , scientists placed 100 such larvae on a regular plastic bag for purchases. Within 12 hours, these larvae ate about 12 mg of polyethylene, that is, about 3% of its mass. In order to make sure that the mite of polyethylene was not the only reason for its destruction, the scientists rastolkli several larvae to the state of the paste and applied this paste on polyethylene film. Over 14 hours the film lost 13% of its mass – presumably as a result of the destruction of polyethylene by enzymes from the stomachs of larvae.
According to the authors of the work, the ability of larvae to destroy plastic is due to the same reason as their ability to destroy their main food product – beeswax. “Wax is a complex mixture of molecules, but the main kind of bond in these molecules is the same as in polyethylene, this is a carbon-carbon bond. And in the process of evolution, the larvae developed the ability to destroy it, “she said.
By itself, the body’s ability to destroy polyethylene is quite natural, and there is nothing surprising in this, but admires the speed of this biodegradation. The next step should be to identify the cause of this biodegradation. If it is an enzyme, then what it produces – the larvae themselves, or microorganisms in their intestines. Anyway, scientists expressed the hope that their discovery will help find a way to use this enzyme to destroy plastics lying on landfills and scattered in the oceans.
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