caterpillars

Dhruvika writes on sustainable practices in various sectors for BuzzOnEarth. Get in touch with her at dhruvika@buzzonearth.com. Sometimes she reads her emails too.

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Caterpillars. Who would have thought? The wax worms hold potential to help get rid of the massive amount of the plastic on the planet. They are shown to digest plastic. Although years of research is still needed to be done, but if it turns out to be successful, it could be massive.

The wax worms are the larval stage of the Galleria mellonella, commonly known as the wax moth. They are widely used as fishing baits and are fed to birds in the United States while in Europe these caterpillars are notorious as beehive pest. They eat the beeswax and are kept away from it.

The discovery happened by accident. Federica Bertocchini is a Spanish scientist at the Spanish National Research Council. In her spare time, she also does beekeeping. She picked some caterpillars from her beehives and kept them in a plastic bag so they wouldn’t be able to escape. But that was exactly what happened, they escaped by chewing through the plastic bag.

“When I checked, I saw that the bag was full of holes. There was only one explanation: The worms had made the holes and had escaped. This project began there and then,” she said.

After some study, Bertocchini along with her fellow scientists discovered that the caterpillars can metabolize polyethylene. 100 caterpillars ate about 92 milligrams of plastic. This is an impressive speed compared to the bacteria discovered earlier that dissolve it at the rate of 0.13 milligrams a day.

The worms weren’t converting plastic into microplastics. They have shown to dissolve the polymer chain of polyethylene. The worms were blended and the paste was also making holes in the plastic.

“The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up. We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms,” Paolo Bombelli, co-author of the journal released said. “The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut. The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible.”

The mystery enzyme still remains to be discovered and studied in depth which would take several years. The gene causing enzyme can be integrated into the genetic makeup of E.coli or some other microorganism. That would be an easier option than to breed an army of caterpillars to attack plastic. Also, that would leave bees furious and probably extinct.

This could be a big relief from plastic. The 80 million tons of plastic that mankind produces every year could be curbed to some point. The clogged drainage, landfills and water bodies can be relieved from the unbreakable menace that the plastic is.

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