Plastic eating Caterpillars; An addition to bacteria and fungi which could help with humanity’s waste situation

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An amateur beekeeper, scientist and researcher at the Spanish National Research Council, Federica Bertocchini, discovered an interesting phenomenon that may revolutionize the way we deal with our excessive trash.

Her out of luck discovery was that of a common insect larva which can biodegrade plastic compounds found in various polyethylene based products like shopping bags. She and her team of researchers outlined in their study that the trash eating caterpillar could reduce plastic which is greatly resistant to biodegradation and could be a miracle solution and stimulus for scientists to engineer innovative chemical processes, which can address humanity’s growing plastic waste epidemic.

It all started when Bertocchini while removing parasitic pests from her beehives’ honeycomb, observed that the plastic bags where she had stored her caterpillars had become perforated in less than an hour. This led her to investigate the matter further so she teamed up with biochemist Paolo Bombelli of the University of Cambridge to dig deeper.

This moth larva caterpillar Galleria Mellonella is known by beekeepers as the wax moth due to its ability in finding a way to lay eggs inside of beehives, where their babies hatch and feed off on the beeswax. It was found by the team that these caterpillars can break down our most stubborn of all waste material – plastic. The study tries to explain why, as the chemical processes of both are possibly similar.

The researchers are eager, as this means that scientists all over the world can now develop a biotech based approach in solving our plastic waste situation which currently threatens wildlife, nature and the land and sea environment all over the world.

In their experiments, the researchers left 100 caterpillars with a common plastic shopping bag bought from a supermarket in the UK. It was observed that in just 40 minutes there were appearances of holes in the bag whereas after 12 hours the caterpillar larva had diminished the amount of plastic by about 92 milligrams.

Last year in November, a similar news surfaced about bacteria Ideonella Sakaiensis which has evolved to break and consume PET, the most harmful form of plastic. This super bacteria actually consumed a diet made only of PET that it reduced through its enzymes. It sticks to the plastic and then breaks it down in two steps, first terephthalic acid and then in ethylene glycol.

The newly discovered wax moth too diminishes the plastic but it’s much faster than the bacteria which can break down at 0.13mg of plastic a day.

In the tests that followed, the researching team smeared ground caterpillars paste onto the plastic and noticed that the degradation process remained similar which indicates that it’s the insect’s body chemicals, probably from the gut, that make the degradation possible. A patent has already been filed by the team on this thrilling discovery, as the possibilities of use can be vast and highly valuable.

Researcher Bombelli described in his statement that the single enzyme’s action could be reproduced on a large scale using biotechnical procedures. He pointed out that the discovery could be a vital aid in getting rid of polyethylene plastic waste that has gathered in oceans and landfills.

It was also earlier last year, in February, when the Smithsonian Mag published about another miraculous natural discovery of a plastic eating fungus, a mushroom that is being used by an Austrian designer which can break down plastic and turn it into food. Pestalotiopsis Microspora mushroom was discovered a few years ago in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest and was then worked on by scientists to create Fungi Mutarium which processes sugar and plastics and can then be consumed by humans as food.

It seems that once again the evolutionary power of nature has somehow directed us to an answer for one of our biggest problems. But it’s up to us to understand and devise a way to imitate these creatures if we wish to expand these biological processes on an industrial level.

Plastic today is a growing yet never ending problem. We produce up to 80 million tons of it each year all over the world but it takes the substance more than a 100 years to completely degrade. Hence scientists and researchers from the top institutions are turning towards nature to come up with possible ways with which they can speed up the process.

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