Researchers have discovered enzymes, present in the saliva of larvae, which can rapidly degrade polyethylene, one of the most widely used plastics in the world.

The results of their work were published in a study this Tuesday in the journal 

Nature Communications


Of the 400 million tonnes of plastics produced each year according to the OECD, approximately 33% are polyethylenes.

Derived from petrochemicals, simple and inexpensive to manufacture, they are particularly widely used for packaging.

The UN, for which plastic pollution is a global scourge, recently launched negotiations to develop a treaty aimed at reducing this phenomenon.

An almost random discovery

The fact that certain enzymes can attack plastic was already known, but over long periods of time.

However, the researchers behind this study discovered two new ones in the saliva of the larvae of the moth “False wax moth” (galleria mellonella).

These attack polyethylene in just a few hours at room temperature.

Federica Bertocchini, lead author of the study and passionate about beekeeping, had the idea for this research by cleaning hives stored for the winter, which had been colonized by these larvae.

These were placed in a plastic bag which was found full of holes shortly afterwards.

Consider concrete uses

But Federica Bertocchini is already imagining different avenues of use against plastic pollution.

"The enzymes could be incorporated into a liquid solution and poured onto plastic in the dump," she said.

They could also be used in isolated places where collection or recycling are difficult, or even eventually in individual households.


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