Scientists are hopeful that a newly discovered caterpillar could help provide a solution to the plastic waste crisis.

Greater wax moth caterpillars are able to eat and digest plastic, the non-biodegradable material that has been stuffing landfills for decades.

An estimated 300 million tons of plastic are produced per year, much of which ends up polluting the ocean and other ecosystems. The problem has led eight states to ban single-use plastics, like bags and straws, in an effort to protect the environment.

However, scientists believe that studying how the greater wax moth caterpillar is able to break down and digest plastic could help them develop a way for humans to synthetically biodegrade plastic.

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“Nature is providing us with a great starting point to model how to effectively biodegrade plastic,” biologist Christophe LeMoine of Brandon University told Discover Magazine. “But we still have a few more puzzles to solve before using this technology, so it’s probably best to keep reducing plastic waste while this gets figured out.”

Over 50 species of microorganisms are plastivores — being able to metabolize plastic — but LeMoine’s research group focused on caterpillar larvae of the greater wax moth, and discovered that the bacteria in the larvae’s gut could subsist on just plastic for an entire year.

“They are voracious feeders during these larval stages,” Bryan Cassone, an associate professor of biology and colleague of LeMoine, told USA Today in the early years of the study.

In nature, waxworms typically live off of honeycombs, which are chemically quite similar to plastic LeMoine said.

“The waxworm and its gut bacteria must break down these long chains (in honeycomb),” LeMoine said. “And presumably, because plastics are similar in structure, they can also co-opt this machinery to use polyethylene plastics as a nutrient source.”

Waxworms pose a threat to bee’s ecosystems, as feeding off honeycomb could lower the already at-risk bee population, as well as hurt the crops reliant on the bees’ pollination.

LeMoine believes that caterpillars are not the single solution to ending plastic pollution, as it takes one week and approximately 60 waxworms to biodegrade a single plastic bag, but studying their digestive process may provide the key to establishing a sustainable solution.

“A better understanding of how this synergy works may guide future efforts to design the ‘perfect’ plastic biodegradation system,” LeMoine said.

Cassone said he hopes to discover how to channel the bacteria in the caterpillars’ guts and use it to limit pollution from plastic.

“We envision harnessing the waxworm and its microbiome to develop approaches that do not require whole organisms – rather the products or by-products produced from their interactions that make their ability to breakdown plastic so efficient,” Cassone said.

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