Name: Debbie Chachra
Title: Associate professor of materials science, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
Location: Needham, Mass.
Polyester bees are all over the Northeast. The interesting thing about them is that they dig underground tunnels, about the width of your pinky finger, where they lay their eggs. To protect their larvae from heat, cold, fungus, bacteria and other dangers, the bees line these chambers with a clear, cellophanelike substance. The larvae then live underground for most of their lives in these reinforced cells.
I kind of stumbled on polyester, or Colletes, bees somewhere on the Internet and eventually got samples of their nest cells from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We haven’t published our work yet, but we have been looking at these cells and trying to figure out what they’re made of.
The bad news is that these cells are really hard to study because their job is to be hard to break down. We found ourselves in this catch-22: anything nasty enough to break them down was too nasty to put into our equipment and anything we could put into our equipment wouldn’t break them down.
But what we did show was that it’s not just plastic. There are actually silk fibers that the bees lay down first, and the plastic is put down on top of the fibers—like fiberglass—and that makes it really durable. We’re working with bacteriologists to see if we can find a bacterium that will break down the plastic.
We care about this material for two reasons. The official reason is that it’s a fascinating biologically derived material that isn’t biodegradable. So I don’t know if you ever do this, but I occasionally forget about spaghetti in the back of my fridge. You wind up with a sealed plastic container that has decomposing stuff inside. You don’t want your container to also be part of the decomposing stuff, but we also don’t want to keep filling our landfills with containers. This could be a material that’s robust under normal circumstances but can be broken down and reused. The second reason I care about this is that it’s emblematic of the fact that there’s an enormous amount we don’t know about the world around us. It makes me wonder how many other things there are like this.