Plastic pollution is everywhere, seeping into our land, our oceans, and even our bodies. Despite our best efforts to recycle, the problem has remained high.
The greater wax moth
Now, a form of caterpillar is offering revived hope in the fight against such pollution, reports Discover Magazine. Researchers have discovered that the greater wax moth loves to eat plastic and they are now studying the way it digests it for answers on how to cope with our ubiquitous plastic problem.
“Nature is providing us with a great starting point to model how to effectively biodegrade plastic,” told Discover Magazine biologist and study author Christophe LeMoine of Brandon University in Manitoba. “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.”
LeMoine and his team decided to study how the caterpillar larvae of the greater wax moth and the microorganisms in their guts broke down and metabolized plastic. To do this, they took the bacteria from the waxworms’ gut and grew it on its own in the lab.
It was then that they stumbled upon one particular species of bacteria that could survive on nothing but plastic for a year. The researchers further discovered a “very close working relationship” between the caterpillar and its gut microorganisms.
Although both can digest plastic on their own, together they do this much faster. Furthermore, plastic-eating caterpillars were found to have higher amounts of gut microbes.
The researchers attributed this process to the fact that these caterpillars are used to eating honeycomb wax. This wax is made up of very long chains of carbon and hydrogen molecules called hydrocarbons which also make up plastics.
“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.”
Now the scientists are hoping that understanding how these caterpillars and their gut bacteria function could pave the way to new solutions for dealing with our ever-growing plastic problems.