Plastic-Eating Caterpillars Could Help Bring an End to Pollution

Plastic-Eating Caterpillars Could Help Bring an End to Pollution

The critters' unusual choice of diet was discovered nearly by accident, but now researchers want to use the bugs to develop a quick way of breaking down the polyethylene material that's found in many non-biodegradable plastics.

After researcher, and amatuer bee keeper, Federica Bertocchini, from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC) in Spain, removed wax worms from the honeycombs in her hives she deposited them in an plastic shopping bag. While the wax worms were temporarily in a plastic shopping bag, Bertocchini found it riddled with holes as the insects tried to eat their way out of it. The researchers say the worms, the young of the wax moth Galleria mellonella, typically feed on beeswax in beehives, and through that process break down bonds in the beeswax in a similar way to how they do with polyethylene. After just 40 minutes, holes began to appear in the bag, and after 12 hours the larvae had managed to reduce the amount of plastic by as much as 92 milligrams. "We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms", said Paolo Bombelli of University of Cambridge.

Polyethylene takes decades to decompose - low-density polyethylene bags take about 100 years to decompose completely. The tiny caterpillar has the ability to break down even the toughest plastics which can offer an environmentally friendly solution to the world's plastic problem.

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This larva species, commercially produced in large numbers to act as fish bait is, in its natural form a beehive parasite, which literally nests in beeswax throughout Europe.

'Wax is a polymer, a sort of 'natural plastic, ' and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene, ' Dr Bertocchini said.

To confirm it was not just the caterpillars' chewing mechanism that was degrading the plastic, researchers "mashed up" some of the worms and smeared them on polyethylene bags, which achieved similar results.

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The global plastic bag crisis could be solved by a waxworm capable of eating through the material at "uniquely high speeds", scientists have announced. As she extracted them, she placed them in plastic bags, and later found those bags full of holes. The research is published in a paper in the journal Current Biology.

They found the worms not only eat the plastic, they break it down chemically into the organic compound ethylene glycol. The plastic-eating caterpillar can also digest polyethylene, as shown in the video above. While scientists are working to find solutions to the plastic pollution, one of the best ways to save the environment is to minimize plastic use and recycle more. Bertocchini argued that when they compared the wax worm with the bacteria located near the recycling facility, they unveiled that the caterpillar is faster at digesting plastic.

'However, ' she adds, 'we should not feel justified to dump polyethylene deliberately in our environment just because we now know how to bio-degrade it'.

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"This is great because we really hope to identify the enzyme".

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