Caterpillar V. Plastic

Caterpillar V. Plastic

With regard to the environment, the news is mostly, well, not so good. In fact, the planet has breached 410 ppm for the first time in history and some scientists are saying we have only 10 years left to save the planet. (EcoWatch, April 13.) But in the midst of chemical spills (recently, near Lake Michigan) and two pipeline spills (recently, Ohio wetlands), and all the protests, there is at least one tiny beacon of hope. And it comes in the form of a teeny tiny caterpillar, which delights in chowing down on plastic. Story by Lorraine Chow was featured in EcoWatch. For more on the state of the planet and how you can get in line with a caterpillar and make a difference, attend Mountainfilm, which this year is focusing on The New Normal.

Image, courtesy, The New York Times.

A research team discovered that the caterpillars of the greater wax moth—considered a pest in Europe because it eats the beeswax from honeycombs—also has the ability to biodegrade polyethylene, the same material used in whale-choking, landfill-clogging plastic shopping bags.

Incredibly, this discovery was all down to chance.

Scientist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini of Spain’s IBBTEC institute had picked out a number of the parasitic caterpillars from her beehives and placed them into a plastic bag. She later discovered that the bag was full of holes because the waxworms had eaten their way out.

She decided to study the caterpillars further, enlisting researchers from the University of Cambridge’s department of biochemistry to find out how good these little bugs were at eating plastic.

For their study, the team exposed around a hundred wax worms to a plastic bag from a UK supermarket. Remarkably, holes started to appear after just 40 minutes. After 12 hours, there was a reduction in plastic mass of 92 milligrams from the bag.

To test whether it was just the chewing mechanism of the caterpillars degrading the plastic, the team then mashed up some of the worms and smeared the paste onto polyethylene bags. The bags also degraded with similar results.

This implies that the chemicals in the caterpillar’s body could be responsible for breaking down polyethylene.

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