Plastic-eating 'worms' could save the world

Posted at 5:47 PM, Apr 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-07 17:15:44-04

(RNN) - A caterpillar that eats shopping bags may save the world.

The "wax worm," so-called because it infests bee hives and eats all the wax, also has a taste for polyethylene, the plastic used to make soda bottles, food containers, shopping bags and other stuff that keeps piling up.

Polyethylene takes centuries to degrade. Galleria mellonella, which voraciously consumes and digests plastics, may hold the key to ridding the world of mountains of waste that that have accumulated over decades.

Like many other major scientific breakthroughs, the discovery of the humble worm's astonishing ability came by pure chance.

Researcher Frederica Bertocchini, from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology at Cantabrai in Spain, is also an amateur beekeeper. When she found her hives infested with wax worms, she put the pests in a shopping bag to throw away later.

Soon, she discovered the caterpillars had chewed holes through the bag and escaped. She's not an expert on plastics or insects, but a good scientist knows when they're on to something amazing.

Along with two colleagues from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., she conducted a series of experiments and published the results in the Aug. 24 issue of Current Biology.

The caterpillar eats the plastic and digests it, quickly breaking down the very chemical bonds that have made the stuff so hard to get rid of.

You can't just dump a bunch of caterpillars on a landfill and wait for them to clean up the mess. Landfills lack oxygen, and the worms would die before they could do their thing. But the Cambridge team is confident the little guys hold the secret to save humanity from its garbage. 

The next step will be to identify the molecular process that breaks down the plastic and isolate the enzyme responsible. If scientists can find the enzyme, the team believes they can produce it on an industrial scale to manage plastic waste.

"This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans," said Paolo Bombelli, the principal author of the story in Current Biology.

Bertocchini echoed the sentiment in a statement to a Cambridge publication.

"We are planning to implement this finding in a viable way to get rid of plastic waste, working toward a solution to save our oceans, rivers and all the environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation," she said.

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