Nav: Home

A plastic-eating caterpillar

April 24, 2017

Generally speaking, plastic is incredibly resistant to breaking down. That's certainly true of the trillion polyethylene plastic bags that people use each and every year. But researchers reporting in Current Biology on April 24 may be on track to find a solution to plastic waste. The key is a caterpillar commonly known as a wax worm.

"We have found that the larva of a common insect, Galleria mellonella, is able to biodegrade one of the toughest, most resilient, and most used plastics: polyethylene," says Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain. A previous study (doi: 10.1021/es504038a) has shown that Plodia interpunctella wax worms, the larvae of dian mealmoths, can also digest plastic.

Bertocchini and her colleagues made the discovery quite by accident, after noticing that plastic bags containing wax worms quickly became riddled with holes. Further study showed that the worms can do damage to a plastic bag in less than an hour.

After 12 hours, all that munching of plastic leads to an obvious reduction in plastic mass. The researchers showed that the wax worms were not only ingesting the plastic, they were also chemically transforming the polyethylene into ethylene glycol. This is suspected to be the case in Plodia interpunctella as well.

Although wax worms wouldn't normally eat plastic, the researchers suspect that their ability is a byproduct of their natural habits. Wax moths lay their eggs inside beehives. The worms hatch and grow on beeswax, which is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds. The researchers say the molecular details of wax biodegradation require further investigation, but it's likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds.

"Wax is a polymer, a sort of 'natural plastic,' and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene," Bertocchini says.

As the molecular details of the process become known, the researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution to managing polyethylene waste. They'll continue to explore the process in search of such a strategy.

"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," Bertocchini says. "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."
-end-
This work was funded by the Leverhulme foundation. Paolo Bombelli and Federica Bertocchini are co-founders of the company Baky.ltd.

Current Biology, Bombelli et al.: "Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella." http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)30231-2

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. Visit: http://www.cell.com/current-biology. To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact press@cell.com.

Cell Press

Related Environment Articles:

How we care for the environment may have social consequences
Anyone can express their commitment to the environment through individual efforts, but some pro-environmental or 'green' behaviors may be seen as either feminine or masculine, which Penn State researchers say may have social consequences.
Neighborhood environment and health
It is well understood that urban black males are at a disproportionately high risk of poor health outcomes.
Children shape their learning environment
A close collaboration between University of Connecticut and Interacting Minds at Aarhus University researchers is exploring how parents and children influence each other when they interact, and the longer term impact this has on language acquisition.
Right green for crop, environment, wallet
Researchers found an efficient approach to managing nitrogen in agriculture and reducing its environmental impact.
Monitoring the environment with artificial intelligence
Microorganisms perform key functions in ecosystems and their diversity reflects the health of their environment.
More Environment News and Environment Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...