The Waxworm Is A Caterpillar That Eats Plastic

It's pretty common knowledge that plastic can literally take forever to break down. That's because the complex polymer molecules that make it up are so far removed from anything organic that there are hardly any organic systems that can digest them. But a random discovery by a Spanish animal embryologist has shown that there are actually animals that can break down plastic bags—by eating them. The only question is, is that enough to fight the plastic waste we create every day?

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Waxworms eating its way through plastic.

An Accidental Discovery

Federica Bertocchini, the scientist who found the bug that's capable of digesting plastic, doesn't specialize in insects, digestion, or conservation. In fact, she wasn't even on the clock when she made her discovery. Instead, she was just keeping up with her favorite hobby: beekeeping, which requires her to clean a lot of invasive pests off of hives. Wax moth larvae, known as waxworms, are a particularly nasty thorn in the side of bees and their keepers. The caterpillars can eat through the wax of a hive and decimate a population of bees. But after Bertocchini had gathered up and tossed away an infestation of the little buggers, she discovered something: a smattering of caterpillar-sized holes in her garbage can's plastic lining. The waxworms had chewed right through it.

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Of course, that alone wasn't enough to prove that waxworms are capable of actually digesting plastic. After all, anyone can chew through a plastic bag, but actually converting it into energy is something else entirely. So Bertocchini took chewing out of the equation. She mashed up a bunch of the waxworms into a paste (sorry, little guys!), then spread that paste over some more plastic bags. Again, the plastic dissolved away. Bertocchini believes the waxworms' ability to break down plastic is a side-effect of their normal, waxy diet. See, both the wax they usually eat and polyethylene plastic bags are made up of carbon-carbon bonds, so by evolving the unusual ability to digest one material, the worms got access to the other as well. Although this might seem like the answer to plastic pollution, not everybody is so enthused.

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A cluster of waxworms chomps its way through plastic.

Source: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli, and Chris Howe

Putting Waxworms To Work

If you're envisioning a future where everyone's house has a colony of waxworms to feed on plastic bags, then we have some bad news for you. There are a few problems with this scheme, starting with the fact that a caterpillar only goes through about 2 milligrams of plastic a day—that means you'd need billions of them eating year-round just to take care of the UK's plastic bags. But even if there were enough waxworms to solve the problem, there's the damage they do to bee populations. You may have heard that bees are in trouble all over the world, so breeding a moth that eats their houses isn't an ideal solution. Still, the very fact that the caterpillars are capable of breaking down plastics could point us towards a technology-driven solution with its roots in the natural world.

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Plastic-Eating Fungus

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Scientists have started using fungus to break down plastic in much less time than it takes to break down on its own. 00:19

  2. Whale poop may help regulate the earth's climate by encouraging the growth of krill and plankton, which absorb a large amount of carbon. 01:17

  3. Sepios is an underwater robot inspired by cuttlefish that can navigate thick tangles of grass without getting stuck. 03:20

The Truth About Biodegradable Plastic

Written by Curiosity Staff May 8, 2017

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