Tiny Plastic-Devouring Caterpillars Fighting Pollution
Non-biodegradable waste is no stranger to clogging up our oceans and landfills. There have been various plans to fight pollution in many different ways but none seem to stick, until now.
A tiny wax worm caterpillar seems just like an ordinary insect that may gross some people out, but now the spotlight is on them.
Christopher LeMoine, an associate professor and chair of biology at Brandon University in Canada, has found that these wax worm caterpillars are enriched with gut microbes that are crucial in the plastic breakdown process; this gut bacteria accelerates the degradation of polyethylene, a key ingredient in plastic which makes it harder to breakdown.
However, this is not an instant solution due to these wax worms still being categorized as a parasite in the beekeeping realm. They devour the wax from the honeycombs, causing destruction to hives.
Their skills were stumbled upon accidentally by Federica Bertocchini, a scientist at the institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria who also happens to be an amateur beekeeper in Spain. In 2017, she had extracted some of the pests from her beehives and placed them in a plastic bag, only later to find that these worms had eaten through the plastic leaving little holes.
She then decided to study them and observe how these tiny insects break down polyethylene. Bertocchini and her team found that these waxworms chomp and digest plastic bags at an alarming rate and faster than any other method known to scientists.
This is a great and monumental breakthrough not only for scientists but for the environment that is in need of cleansing from plastic waste. Just like any new discovery, there are always negative aspects that come with it, this one included. One issue that arose was how the toxic substances the caterpillars egest when fed plastic will be handled.
As research continues to shine a positive and bright light,
“There are still a few more puzzles to solve before this can be effectively used to solve our plastic problem,” LeMoines advises.
While their research advances, reducing plastic waste will keep the environment clean and healthy.