Caterpillar’s Can Provide A Biodegradable Solution To Plastic Pollution
Scientists have unknowingly discovered that caterpillars commercially bred for fishing bait to have the ability to biodegrade polyethylene. It has been a nuisance when it comes to disposing of polyethylene material which we get to see daily in the form of plastic shopping bags clogging up landfill sites and Caterpillar’s could provide a biodegradable solution to plastic pollution.
Many beehives across Europe thrive with a large number of wax worm, the larvae of the common insect Galleria mellonella or greater wax moth. In the wild, it lives as parasites in bee colonies. The wax moths lay their eggs in the hives where the worms hatch and grow on beewax which gives them their name.
One fine day Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper, was removing the parasitic pests from the honeycombs in her hives, she accidentally discovered holes in a typical plastic shopping bag where the worms were temporarily moved.
Later an experiment was carried out by Bertocchini, from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC), Spain, along with colleagues Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry.
They collected around hundred wax worms and exposed them to a plastic bag from a UK supermarket. After about 40 minutes holes started to appear and after 12 hours there was a reduction in plastic mass of 92 mg from the bag. The scientists experienced that the degeneration rate is extremely fast as compared to other discoveries where bacteria is used and the rate found was merely around 0.13mg a day.
Cambridge’s Paolo Bombelli, first author of the study published today in the journal Current Biology said: “If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable. This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.”Plastic has been a nuisance when it comes to breaking it down and even when it does the smaller pieces choke up ecosystems without degrading.
Polyethylene is vastly been used for packaging and has a 40% total demand for plastic products across Europe. About 38% of plastic is discarded in landfills. Numbers suggest people around the world use around a trillion plastic bags every single year. It really has is toll on the environment.
Strangely nature comes to the rescue in the form of beewax on which wax worms grow is composed of a highly diverse mixture of lipid compounds: building block molecules of living cells, including fats, oils and some hormones.
Further studies are yet to done related to the molecular detail of wax biodegradation. Researchers think it is likely that digesting beeswax and polyethylene involves breaking similar types of chemical bonds.
The researchers mashed the caterpillars and smeared them on polythene bags to confirm the fact that the degradation in the plastic was not merely just because of the chewing mechanism.
Bombelli further said: “The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up. We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms,”
He also said: “The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut. The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible.”The researchers will be better equipped once the molecular details of the process are known. This knowhow can be later used to devise a biotechnological solution on an industrial scale for managing polyethylene waste.
About the future plans, Bertocchini said: “We are planning to implement this finding into a viable way to get rid of plastic waste, working towards a solution to save our oceans, rivers, and all the environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation.”