Tuesday, May 02, 2017
Are Worms the Next Hot Franchise?
The lowly, much maligned worm may be elevated to the role of hero. Foolish humans - who have invented their way to a self-harming existence with environmentally degrading, unhealthy and unsustainable products - are desperately looking for a way to clean up plastics. Wax worms may be the answer, presenting a new market opportunity for forward thinking entrepreneurs.
Polyethylene made from fossil fuels has been widely used for plastic bottles and shopping bags, among other products. Unfortunately, the resilience and strength of polyethylene and its sister polypropylene that make them attractive for containers also make these plastics a threat. Plastic does decompose, but at a slow rate and all the while releasing toxic chemicals. Just two examples are bisphenol A, which interferes in the reproductive systems of animals, and styrene monomer, a carcinogen.
Only about 60% to 65% of plastics are recycled or channeled to energy production. Some end up in landfills and the rest becomes trash in the open. Discarded bottles and bags are now choking our fresh waterways and causing a toxic morass in the ocean - places humans count on for fish to eat and water to drink.
In February 2017, three scientists published a paper entitled “Polyethylene Bio-degradation by Caterpillars of the Wax Moth” in the Journal of Current Biology. The article describes the unexpected results from placing caterpillar larva of the wax moth on polyethylene. Polyethylene is a string of complex and tightly connected carbon atoms that are resistant to dissolution. Slow biodegradation had previously been observed after nitric acid treatment and incubation with a liquid culture of fungus. Additionally, bacterial degradation of polyethylene occurred after several weeks of exposure to microorganisms in the gut of Indian meal moth larvae. However, the three researchers achieved far more interesting results.
The three scientists reported holes beginning to appear in a polyethylene film with 40 minutes of exposure to wax worms. Eventually 100 worms left to work on a polyethylene shopping bag for twelve hours were successful in reducing the plastic mass by 92 milligrams. That is fast work for little worms!
To determine if the worms were just chewing up the plastic or actually creating a chemical reaction, a ‘worm homogenate’ was smeared on polyethylene film and compared to an untreated film. The worm treated plastic was reduced by 13% compared to no change for the control polyethylene film. Additional tests were performed to Atomic Force Microscopy that indicated the physical contact of the wax worm homogenate with the plastic surface indeed changed the integrity of the polymer.
There is still considerable work to be done to determine how the wax worms succeed in breaking down plastic. One hypothesis begins with bees. Wax worms apparently like a good nosh of beeswax and are found in bee hives where the moths lay their eggs. Beeswax is a diverse mixture of lipid compounds such as alkanes, alkenes, fatty acids and esters. These words should be familiar to investors in petroleum-based chemicals and bio-chemicals alike. The most frequent chemical bond is beeswax is likely a carbon and hydrogen molecule with another carbon and hydrogen molecule, i.e. CH2 to CH2. When the wax worms digest the beeswax they break up the carbon bonds. The verdict is still out on whether the chemical break up is due to the worm itself or to enzymes in its intestinal tract.
It is also not clear whether the wax worm could be the foundation for a successful business. As the algae industry quickly learned, a few happy algae in a small container were content to deliver large amounts of oil for use as renewable fuel. These otherwise simple creatures seemed to hold great promise for renewable fuel production. However, when scaled to commercial level the algae become persnickety, refusing to cooperate in ‘the big pool’ and delivering disappointing oil production results. Both Shell and ExxonMobile abandoned their respective algal-based biofuel projects. Other developers turned to specialty chemicals and nutritional supplements using algal proteins and carbohydrates.
Wax worms are readily available in large and small quantities at nominal prices - 1,000 worms sell for $43.49 on Amazon.com. Unfortunately wax worms could be just as difficult to handle as algae. The challenge is there for any and all takers.
Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.