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article imagePlastic-eating caterpillar addresses waste problem

By Tim Sandle     Apr 24, 2017 in Science
Cambridge - A plastic-eating caterpillar could munch polymeric waste and help to address the problems of plastic waste disposal that accumulates in landfills, according to a Cambridge science team.
The report comes from Cambridge University scientists who have discovered that the larvae of specific moth can degrade plastic. The caterpillar ordinarily consumes wax in bee hives. The idea is to see how readily the larvae consume plastic waste, such as the waste associated with plastic shopping bags. This is possible through the caterpillar producing a secretion that can break down the chemical bonds of plastic in a similar way that it digests beeswax (whether it is the chemical itself or bacteria contained within the chemicals remains an area that is still be explored).
Plastic waste is a significant ecological issue and despite measures to reduce plastic bags used in grocery stores the contribution of shopping bags remains significant. According to The Guardian, each year the average person in the U.K. uses more than 200 plastic bags. It takes between 100 and 400 years to degrade these bags in landfill sites..
The caterpillars under investigation the larvae of the the greater wax moth or honeycomb moth Galleria mellonella. The moth is found in most of the world, including Europe and adjacent Eurasia. G. mellonella has been introduced as an alternative model to study microbial infections (this is because aspects of its immune system functions analogously to mammalian blood).
The caterpillar larvae (sometimes called waxworms) are known to feed on the honeycomb inside bee nests. Generally they are an unwanted pest for those who undertake apiculture (beekeping).
In trials involving the caterpillars the researchers have found that the larvae can make holes in a plastic bag in under an hour. On this basis several thousand caterpillars should be able to readily destroy a plastic bag completely. Discussing the potential with the BBC, principal scientist Dr Paolo Bombelli explains that they are at the beginning of the evaluation. "We need to understand the details under which this process operates", he explains, adding: "We hope to provide the technical solution for minimising the problem of plastic waste."
The research to date has been published in the journal Current Biology, under the title "Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella."
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