Plastic-eating caterpillars could help solve our plastic waste crisis

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  • Researchers found out that wax worms can survive eating only polyethylene plastic for a year
  • The bacteria present in the caterpillars’ gut aid in the natural degradation of plastic
  • In 2017, a beekeeper discovered by chance how these worms ate through the plastic where she kept them

8 million tons of plastic out of the 300 million yearly global production end in our ocean. This has endangered our marine animals for some of these materials get tangled on their bodies. However, researchers recently have a great discovery which can be a solution to our waste crisis.

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Brandon University scientists published their amazing findings at Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They have learned that the greater wax moth caterpillars can survive for one full year eating only polyethylene, the plastic used in making grocery shopping bags.

Lead author Bryan Cassone revealed that the caterpillars are voracious feeders during these larval stages. With the help of the bacteria living in their gut, they can digest plastic and can survive in it alone for a year.

Based on the study, the caterpillars ate plastic bags for one week, 60 of them can consume 30 square meters of it and produced glycol as a by-product.

Dr. Cassone said in a press release, that this information is very helpful in designing better tools to eliminate plastics and microplastics from our environment.”

This was not the first time plastic-eating worms were discovered. Back in 2017, Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper found by chance that honeycomb panels stored in her house were covered with worms. They were feeding on the leftover honey and wax from her bees.

She removed the worms and placed them in a plastic bag. She went out to clean the panels but when she returned, worms were everywhere. They were able to escape the plastic bag by punching holes through it. That gave her the idea to conduct a study.

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She collaborated with she teamed up with Dr. Paolo Bombelli, a biochemist at the University of Cambridge and they studied the worms’ stomach enzymes.

They carried more experiments to find out what is the chemical process that leads to the natural degradation of plastic by these worms, a puzzle that has been identified by Brandon University researchers lately.

Aside from reducing plastic use, hopefully, scientists can bring this solution to a bigger scale to address our long-time concerns about plastic waste.