Enzymes that rapidly break down plastic bags have been discovered in the saliva of wax worms, which are moth larvae that infest beehives.
Polyethylene makes up 30% of all plastic production and is used in bags and other packaging that make up a significant part of worldwide plastic pollution.
Chemical breakdown could create valuable chemicals or, with some further processing, new plastic, thereby avoiding the need for new virgin plastic made from oil.
As well as large recycling plants, the scientists said it might one day be possible to have kits in homes to recycle plastic bags into useful products.
The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, identified 200 proteins in the wax worm saliva and narrowed down the two that had the plastic-eating effect.
Wax worm larvae live and grow in the honeycombs of beehives and feed on beeswax, which may be why they have evolved the enzymes.
Prof Andy Pickford, the director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the UK’s University of Portsmouth, said the discovery of the enzymes in wax worm saliva was exciting. »