A grub's grub: Scientists discover caterpillar's penchant for plastic

Hungry caterpillars

Used plastic bags may be one man's trash, but to wax worm caterpillars, or Galleria mellonella, they are a veritable banquet.

Now, through a serendipitous discovery, it's clear that G.

The discovery was something of a happy accident at the home of the study's lead author, Federica Bertocchini, a biologist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain. They lay their eggs inside the hives which then hatch and grow eating the beeswax.

A chance discovery occurred when one of the scientific team, Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper, was removing the parasitic pests from the honeycombs in her hives.

When she finished and returned to the worm bags, she found they had eaten holes through the bag and escaped. Less than an hour later, the bag was riddled with holes. She said that was really "very fast".

How does the wax worm manage such a hard feat, and have it with such incredible speed?

So waxworms - technically wax moth caterpillars - cannot only chew through plastic, they can break it down into ethylene glycol. Bertocchini says these caterpillars can break down plastic much more quickly than microbes with similar abilities. After 40 minutes, holes had started to appear and after 12 hours, there was a 92g reduction in the mass of plastic from the bag.

It's not a ideal solution - ethylene glycol in large amounts is toxic.

Startled by the caterpillar's voracious appetite, Bertocchini and a team from Cambridge University made a decision to conduct experiments to find out just how much, and how quickly, the pests could consume environmentally harmful plastic.


Washington D.C. [USA], Apr 25: As weird as it may sound but caterpillars could now help us get rid of plastic pollution! Incredibly, the chrysalis also biodegraded the polyethylene, the researchers said. As the molecular details of the process become known to the researchers, they say it would be used to devise a biotechnological solution to managing polyethylene waste.

"In this way, we can begin to successfully eliminate this highly resistant material", Bertocchini said.

Polyethylene, the plastic that is toughest to be degraded, has met its match.

Polyethylene represents 40 per cent of Europe's demand for plastic products, mostly in the form of packaging and shopping bags.

Chemical degradation can break down the bags, but this process can take months and uses corrosive liquids, including nitric acid, the researchers said.

To confirm it was not just the chewing mechanism of the caterpillars degrading the plastic, the team mashed up some of the worms and smeared them on polyethylene bags, with similar results. The caterpillar lives for about six to seven weeks before it spins a silk chrysalis.

Nature may have stumbled upon an answer to our plastic problem, but we still need to figure out how these creatures do it if we're to ramp their biological processes up to an industrial scale.

'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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