Tough worm

Caterpillar capable of biodegrading plastics discovered

Plastic+biodegraded+by+10+worms+in+only+30+minutes.+
Plastic biodegraded by 10 worms in only 30 minutes.

Plastic biodegraded by 10 worms in only 30 minutes.

Photo provided by César Hernández/CSIC and phys.org

Photo provided by César Hernández/CSIC and phys.org

Plastic biodegraded by 10 worms in only 30 minutes.

Madi Sonnenberg, Web Editor

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When I picture worms or caterpillars, I envision wiggly creatures that just romp around eating leaves and other plant matter. But biodegrading plastics? That’s another story. A caterpillar that has been commercially bred for fishing bait has been recently discovered to be able to eat and process polyethylene, one of the toughest and most common plastics found primarily in packaging materials such as plastic bags. These plastic bags clog up space in landfills and are extremely environmentally unfriendly because of their resistance to degradation. The discovery of the abilities of this worm might just prove to be the answer to this problem.

The wax worm is the larvae of the greater wax moth, a common insect found in beehives all over Europe. They are considered parasitic pests because moths lay their eggs in beehives where the larvae hatch and feed on beeswax. The worms’ abilities were discovered on accident when amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was removing the worms from her beehives and keeping them in plastic bags. The bags were filled with holes, prompting Bertocchini to conduct an experiment with her colleagues at the University of Cambridge to further investigate this strange phenomenon. About 100 wax worms were placed in a plastic bag, and after only 12 hours an astonishing 92mg of plastic had been reduced! This “degradation rate” is significantly faster than other studies, such as a certain bacteria that only biodegrades 0.13mg of plastic per day. Further research concluded that these worms were actually biodegrading the plastics, not just turning them into smaller, bite-sized chunks. The wax worms were physically breaking the polymer chains in the polyethylene plastic.

Further research will still be required, but it seems as if Bertocchini may have stumbled upon the solution to a serious global problem. Bertocchini’s colleague Paolo Bombelli stated that, “If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable.” The implications of this worm are so great and could work wonders for the world’s ecosystems as plastic waste is reduced.

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