While it may not be the beloved character from the Eric Carle children’s books, a very hungry caterpillar could hold the key to solving some of the world’s plastic problems.
A Spanish researcher named Federica Bertocchini, based in the IBBTEC institute, recently made a discovery, almost by accident. Observing the wax worm caterpillar, Bertocchini noticed that the tiny creature was able to ingest an astonishing amount of plastic; seemingly without doing harm to itself.
Wax worms are commonly found in beehives, where they live of the wax formed by the bees. Bertocchini went about gathering up a number of them and putting them into a plastic bag. The wax worms not only managed to eat their way out, but also digested and excreted the plastic.
The scientific community was alerted and an academic study took place in association with the University of Cambridge to examine the validity of Bertocchini’s discovery.
This proved to be a massive breakthrough. Plastics, whilst acting as a useful packaging tool, are one of the planet’s biggest pollution and waste problems. This is due largely in part to the fact that they can’t be broken down by most fungi or bacteria, as many natural organisms are. Thankfully, a few exceptions have been found, as noted by The Atlantic:
Last year, a Japanese team identified a previously unknown bacterium that can degrade PET. And in 2014, Chinese scientists suggested that two species of bacteria from the guts of Indian mealmoths, a type of waxworm, can degrade polyethylene (PE)—the world’s most common plastics.
In both cases, the microbes did their work over the course of weeks or months, which is impressive since plastics can last for decades without decay. But Bertocchini saw that her waxworms—from a different species called the greater wax moth—were working much faster. When she put them in a polyethylene shopping bag, holes would appear within 40 minutes. After a few hours, the bag would be a shredded mess.
It seems that the wax worm can break down plastics far faster than any otehr discover to date, giving hope to our ongoing war with garbage.