The Plastic-Eating Caterpillar That Could Help Save the Planet

An amateur Spanish beekeeper recently made a discovery that could have a major impact in our planet’s fight against pollution and global warming. While tending to her beehives, she removed some wax worms from them, since they are pests that are parasitic towards bee colonies. To get rid of them, she put them in an old plastic bag and set them aside to throw in the garbage bin later.

Before this beekeeper could throw out the plastic bag, she noticed that the worms had eaten through plastic in less than an hour. They had devoured so much of the bag in such a short time that it gave the beekeeper the idea that they might be able to digest polyethylene, which is the plastic that fills up landfills all over the world.

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Federica Bertocchini, the woman who made this discovery, is no ordinary backyard beekeeper. She is actually a scientist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, and her idea about the potential of these pesky caterpillars convinced a pair of researchers from the UK’s University of Cambridge to join her in undertaking a study of the worms.

What the team found could be a solution to the huge ecological problem presented by the millions of non-biodegradable bags littering our landfills, roadsides and even waterways. In one test, they found that a group of 100 wax worms ate 92 milligrams of polyethylene plastic in 12 hours. This may not sound like much, but this rate is much faster even than some plastic-eating bacteria that have recently seemed so promising.

To make sure that it wasn’t just the worm’s mechanical chewing mechanism that was breaking down the plastic into tiny pieces, they ground up some of them and smeared them on a sample of plastic. This test showed that some chemical present in the wax worms is actually breaking down the polyethylene into ethylene glycol, a substance which is highly biodegradable and therefore much better for the environment.

Scientists now need to find out exactly what chemical or enzyme the caterpillar is using to break down the plastic. It is hoped that this substance can be isolated and used to help save the environment. If the researchers are successful, they could one day eliminate the accumulation of plastic trash on the planet.

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