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Accidental discovery: caterpillars of the Great Wax Moth eat plastic
Bags, bottles, packaging and much more: Countless items of everyday use are made of plastic. However, the material used is hardly biodegradable. This has led to a massive waste problem in the past decades. But now there is hope: Researchers have discovered a type of caterpillar that eats plastic.
Mining takes centuries
For years, experts have been trying to find ways to best solve the global garbage problem. Plastic waste is particularly difficult, after all, the material is hardly biodegradable. “It takes around 400 years for a normal plastic bag to decompose. Plastic bottles take 450 years, nylon nets for fishing even 600 years, ”reported the Fraunhofer Institute a few years ago. But there may now be a solution to the problem: researchers discovered a caterpillar that eats plastic.
A billion plastic bags are produced every year
Around a trillion plastic bags are produced worldwide each year, which together make up 60 million tonnes. Since only a small proportion of the global plastic waste is recycled, it is increasingly accumulating in the environment.
Much of it ends up in the sea. Plastic waste can now be found in all sea regions. Plastic waste has already been discovered in Arctic waters.
This also creates health risks. Among other things, plastic parts were found in the sea fish. Microplastics in sea salt have also been demonstrated.
Search for alternatives
In view of the increasing garbage problem, “alternatives to petroleum-based plastics that can be completely biodegraded are being searched feverishly,” wrote the Fraunhofer Institute when it reported on the development of new bio-plastic packaging.
But there may be a much simpler solution to the worldwide garbage problem: the caterpillars of the Great Wax Moth (Galleria mellonella).
They eat what is probably the most frequently used and hardly biodegradable plastic polyethylene (PE), as researchers write in the journal "Current Biology".
This was discovered - like so much in science - by chance.
Accidental find of a hobby beekeeper
"I work professionally with chicken embryos, but I'm a hobby beekeeper," said study author Federica Bertocchini from the Spanish Universidad de Cantabria, according to a report by the dpa news agency.
According to her information, when cleaning a beehive, she discovered "these worms", which feed on pollen residues and are like beekeepers to us beekeepers.
The Italian therefore packed the larvae in a plastic bag and shortly afterwards stated: "After a while the bag was full of holes and the larvae were outside!"
This observation triggered the research work of the scientist and her colleagues.
Get rid of plastic waste in landfills and in the oceans
The team found that around 100 wax moth larvae can eat around 92 milligrams of a normal shopping bag in 12 hours. "It is a very quick breakdown, faster than anything that has been scientifically published on this topic," says Bertocchini.
Study co-author Paolo Bombelli of the University of Cambridge said in a statement: "This discovery could be an important tool to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste that has accumulated in landfills and oceans."
According to Bertocchini, the find has "potential for important biotechnological applications" due to the high rate of decomposition.
The scientist explained: "We suspect that this rapid decomposition is caused by a molecule or enzyme that we will try to isolate." She hopes that this enzyme can then be produced and used on a large scale to break down plastic waste.
Other organisms also break down plastics
It has long been known that other organisms such as fungi or bacteria can also break down plastics. For example, researchers at the Japanese Kyoto Institute of Technology have discovered a bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis that can digest PET bottles.
However, as previously discovered "plastic eaters", these are far from providing a solution to the global problem of plastic waste.
Because even under optimal conditions, it takes about six weeks to decompose a small piece of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The caterpillars of the Great Wax Moth are significantly faster when breaking down polyethylene (PE). (ad)