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Plastic-Eating Caterpillar May Solve Pollution Problem

First Posted: Apr 25, 2017 04:42 AM EDT

One of the biggest problems in environmental science is the amount of plastics left as trash. However, it seems that these non-biodegradable pollutants found their match in the form of a caterpillar.

Researchers from Cambridge University recently discovered that the larvae of a certain moth species eat wax found in beehive. More than that, however, it was found that they can degrade plastics. BBC News reported that experiments showed the insect breaking down chemical bonds of plastic the same way they do with beeswax.

This is especially important because 80 million tons of plastic polyethylene products are produced around the world every year. Plastic is commonly used to make shopping bags and food packaging. But while these make them convenient to use, they take years to decompose. This makes polyethylene particularly harmful to the environment.

The caterpillars of the moth Galleria mellonela, however, can make holes in these plastic bags in under an hour. According to Phys.org, this makes the degradation rate extremely fast. Last year's discovery of a bacteria that degrade plastics only do so at the rate of 0.13 mg a day. The caterpillars, on the other hand, can biodegrade 92 mg of a plastic bag in 12 hours.

Dr. Paolo Bombelli, a biochemist from the University of Cambridge and one of the researchers of the study, said that the caterpillars are only just the starting point of biodegrading plastics. "We need to understand the details under which this process operates," he shared.

So far, Dr. Bombelli and his team think that the microbes in the caterpillar may play a role in breaking down plastics. Once the team members identify the chemical process involved, they can find a solution to managing plastic wastes. Dr. Federica Bertocchini of the Spanish National Research Council also shared that knowing how to biodegrade plastic does not mean humans should feel justified in dumping them in the environment.

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