Scientists find commercial caterpillar capable of eating, processing plastic

Wax worm

At the point when humankind is facing serious environmental threats, the plastic degrading substance used by these wax worms if maufactured on large scale can take the form of an environmentally harmless liquid that could be used in plastic treatment facilities. But the wax caterpillars appeared to be perfectly healthy after feeding on the plastic bags, and were able to turn into a moth.

The promising discovery centres on the wax worm - the name for the caterpillar larva of Galleria mellonella, or greater wax moth.

"The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up", says co-author Paolo Bombelli, a biochemist at the University of Cambridge. But Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria happened upon much faster eaters when removing caterpillars known as wax worms from the honeycombs of one of her hives. But as a new study published in Current Biology shows, these caterpillars are not just capable of breaking down beeswax, they can also break down plastic-and that's probably not a coincidence.

"We should be very happy that we have plastic for millions of items, but we need to be careful about plastic waste, and what we are studying might help for minimising that", Bombelli said.

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But in a chance discovery, a scientist and amateur beekeeper has found that waxworms have a taste for more than wax. She noticed that worms have made little holes in the bag and chewed through the plastic at an alarming rate. She chose to investigate further, recruiting biochemist Paolo Bombelli from the University of Cambridge for her help. Microbes within the wax worm caterpillars, they believe, as well as the insect, itself, could be responsible for the their ability to break down and devour plastic.

According to the research scientists, it could be because of the similar composition of beeswax and polyethylene. It's possible that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves decomposing down similar types of chemical bonds. Naturally, this has the researchers excited, and they've already filed a patent on their discovery.

'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.

Although the biodegradation of polyethylene may now be a reality, Dr. Bertocchini urges the public to keep refraining from deliberately dumping plastic in the environment.

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Tons of polyethylene plastic bags are produced every year. Researchers are now looking to nature to find ways of boosting the speed at which we can degrade this stuff. The bacterium Nocardia asteroides can also begin to eat up this plastic after four to seven months. Once researchers know exactly how the moth is performing its trick they could apply that knowledge to large-scale efforts to biodegrade junk plastic in places where it causes the most problems, such as the ocean and other pollution hot spots.

"The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut", said Bombelli.

After 12 hours, all that munching of plastic leads to an obvious reduction in plastic mass. Call it a happy accident.

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