A very plastic hungry caterpillar: how it could help save the earth.
Even the smallest among us can be big heroes. Take the lowly wax worm, for instance.
The larva of the greater wax moth is considered a huge pest in Europe, because it acts as a parasite in bee colonies.
However, its bizarre eating habits may help solve a huge environmental problem.
The fast-eating caterpillar known as Galleria mellonella, a wax worm, is sometimes used as fish bait. But the caterpillars are also known to beekeepers as parasitic pests that lay eggs in hives where the offspring grow and feed on beeswax.
An amateur beekeeper in Spain discovered this when she plucked some of the pests from her beehives and put them in a plastic bag. The worms eventually ate little holes in the bag, chewing through the plastic at an alarming rate.
This led to a wonderful idea: What if these so-called pests could actually help break down polyethylene, a common and non-biodegradable plastic currently clogging up landfills around the world? Seems humans are not getting the message about the evils of plastic so we need to find other methods of breaking it down.
The beekeeper is actually Federica Bertocchini, a scientist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria. She and two researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry put together a study to see just how good these little grubs were at passing the plastic, so to speak.
The team found the wax worms broke down polyethylene plastic bags faster than other recently-tested methods. In order to probe deeper, researchers from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria as well as the University of Cambridge collected about 100 wax worms and exposed them to a supermarket plastic bag. Within 40 minutes, holes began to appear. After 12 hours, the wax worms had reduced the mass of the plastic bag by 92 milligrams. There are still more tests that need to be done, but if scientists can replicate whatever causes the breakdown, if could be used to alleviate the burden of non-biodegradable waste.
“If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable,” said Cambridge’s Paolo Bombelli, first author of the study.
The team also used a rather analog method to make sure it was an actual chemical process helping the caterpillars get rid of the plastic, and not just some voracious, bag-centric appetite:
“To confirm it wasn’t just the chewing mechanism of the caterpillars degrading the plastic, the team mashed up some of the worms and smeared them on polyethylene bags, with similar results,” a summary of the study reads. Who knows what the next great discovery is, but we need all the help we can get!