4/25/2017

Caterpillars that eat plastic bags discovered, could lead to pollution solution


The greater wax moth caterpillar can biodegrade polyethylene, one of the most widely used and indestructible plastics vexing the planet.

Caterpillars. They're cute, they star in children's books, they turn into pretty moths and butterflies. And now it turns out they may hold the solution to the planet's plastic predicament.

Like many great findings and inventions, the discovery of a caterpillar that eats plastic was made accidentally. Biologist Federica Bertocchini, a biologist at Spain's Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, was tending to her hobby beehives and used a polyethylene shopping bag to collect pests known as wax worms – AKA our superhero caterpillars, the larvae of the moth Galleria mellonella. Known for infesting hives and eating honey and wax, Bertocchini was surprised to see the shopping bag riddled with holes before long. She got in touch with colleagues from the University of Cambridge, Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe, reports the Washington Post. “Once we saw the holes the reaction was immediate: that is it, we need to investigate this.”

While there have been other creatures that biodegrade plastics – recently a bacteria and mealworm were found to have an appetite for such – none of them have been able to do so with such rapacity as the wax worm. Given the completely insane rate at which we produce, use (one time), and toss plastic bags, the idea of something that devours them is pretty intriguing. In America alone we use some 102 billion plastic bags per year; globally, we use a trillion plastic bags annually. Some 38 percent of plastic is discarded in landfills, where it can survive for 1,000 years or more....more