Plastic-eating caterpillar could remove the world’s waste


People use one trillion plastic bags every year and scientists finally think they might have found something to degrade some of this waste – a caterpillar.

Not only do these wax worm caterpillars ingest the plastic they also chemically transform it into a see-through alcohol. 

Researchers made the discovery by accident when they spotted plastic bags containing wax worms quickly became riddled with holes. 

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This image shows a wax worm chewing a hole through plastic. Polyethylene debris can be seen attached to the caterpillar. Not only do these wax worm caterpillars ingest the plastic they also chemically transform it into a see-through alcohol

This image shows a wax worm chewing a hole through plastic. Polyethylene debris can be seen attached to the caterpillar. Not only do these wax worm caterpillars ingest the plastic they also chemically transform it into a see-through alcohol

This image shows a wax worm chewing a hole through plastic. Polyethylene debris can be seen attached to the caterpillar. Not only do these wax worm caterpillars ingest the plastic they also chemically transform it into a see-through alcohol

WAX WORM CATERPILLARS 

Wax moths lay their eggs inside beehives. 

The worms hatch and grow on beeswax, which is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds. 

Although wax worms wouldn’t normally eat plastic, the researchers suspect that their ability is a byproduct of their natural habits. 

It’s likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds.

Researchers from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain found that wax worms can do serious damage to a plastic bag in less than an hour. 

‘We have found that the larva of a common insect, Galleria mellonella, is able to biodegrade one of the toughest, most resilient, and most used plastics: polyethylene,’ said Federica Bertocchini, who led the research. 

The researchers showed that the wax worms were not only ingesting the plastic, they were also chemically transforming the polyethylene into ethylene glycol – a translucent alcohol.

Although wax worms wouldn’t normally eat plastic, the researchers suspect that their ability is a byproduct of their natural habits.

Although wax worms wouldn't normally eat plastic, the researchers suspect that their ability is a byproduct of their natural habits. Researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution to managing polyethylene waste

Although wax worms wouldn't normally eat plastic, the researchers suspect that their ability is a byproduct of their natural habits. Researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution to managing polyethylene waste

Although wax worms wouldn’t normally eat plastic, the researchers suspect that their ability is a byproduct of their natural habits. Researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution to managing polyethylene waste

Pictured is plastic biodegraded by ten worms in 30 minutes. Experts discovered that the caterpillar  can eat through  the toughest and most used plastics

Pictured is plastic biodegraded by ten worms in 30 minutes. Experts discovered that the caterpillar  can eat through  the toughest and most used plastics

Pictured is plastic biodegraded by ten worms in 30 minutes. Experts discovered that the caterpillar can eat through the toughest and most used plastics

Wax moths, which are found widely in Europe and eastern North America, lay their eggs inside beehives. 

According to the paper, which is published in Current Biology, the worms naturally hatch and grow on beeswax, which is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds. 

It’s likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds.

Bred commercially for fish bait, in the wild, the eggs of the greater wax moth  are laid in bee hives where they hatch and feast on the wax. Pictured are three wax worms

Bred commercially for fish bait, in the wild, the eggs of the greater wax moth  are laid in bee hives where they hatch and feast on the wax. Pictured are three wax worms

Bred commercially for fish bait, in the wild, the eggs of the greater wax moth  are laid in bee hives where they hatch and feast on the wax. Pictured are three wax worms

The worms hatch and grow on beeswax, which is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds. It's likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds

The worms hatch and grow on beeswax, which is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds. It's likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds

The worms hatch and grow on beeswax, which is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds. It’s likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds

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

As the molecular details of the process become known, the researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution to managing polyethylene waste.

They’ll continue to explore the process in search of such a strategy.

‘We are planning to implement this finding into a viable way to get rid of plastic waste, working towards a solution to save our oceans, rivers, and all the environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation,’ said Dr Bertocchini. 

‘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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