Plastic-Eating Caterpillar Could Help Get Rid Of Used Shopping Bags

Posted: Apr 25 2017, 3:26am CDT | by , Updated: Apr 25 2017, 3:32am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

Plastic-Eating Caterpillar could help Get Rid of Used Shopping Bags
A chunk of plastic after 10 worms spent about 30 minutes feasting. Credit: CSIC Communications Department

Bizarre eating habits of greater wax moth larvae may help solve a huge environmental problem

The greater wax moth is a parasite that thrives in bee colonies across the Europe. It can be very destructive and quickly destroys beeswax combs. But researchers have found that this caterpillar could help solve a huge environmental problem.

The wax worm, larvae of the common insect Galleria mellonella or greater wax moth, can eat plastic and is capable of decomposing polyethylene shopping bags, one of the toughest and most used plastics that remained clogged up the landfills and pollutes environments.

The wax worm is not known for its plastic-munching habits. The accidental discovery occurred when an amateur beekeeper in Spain plucked some of the pests from her beehives and put them in a plastic bag. She noticed that worms have made little holes in the bag and chewed through the plastic at an alarming rate.

The amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini, who is also a scientist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC) in Spain, collaborated with its colleagues and conducted experiments to understand more about the phenomenon.

Around a hundred wax worms were kept in typical plastic shopping bags from a UK supermarket. Shopping bags were riddled with holes after just 40 minutes and a significant reduction in plastic mass was observed after just 12 hours.

Researchers say that the degradation rate is extremely fast compared to other recent discoveries, especially given the fact that plastic is extremely resistant to decomposition and it takes it hundreds of years to degrade.

“This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans,” said study researcher Paolo Bombelli from University of Cambridge.

“If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable.”

Tons of polyethylene plastic bags are produced every year. They are mostly used for packaging. Since they are very hard to break down, their recycling is a big challenge. Moth larvae living in bee colonies could be a natural solution to the problem.

Caterpillars can break down the bag’s polyethylene into ethylene glycol, which is commonly found substance in household items, such as laundry and dishwasher detergents, cosmetics and paints and can also be used as antifreeze. However, researchers are still unsure how caterpillars eat plastic away. Further research is needed to gain more insight into the process.

“The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut,” said Bombelli. “The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible."

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir. With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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