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Caterpillars of the Greater Wax Moth can Digest Polyethylene

Posted April 25, 2017

For the most part, plastic is a tough material, which takes a fairly long time to break down under natural conditions and thereby poses a riddle to global efforts to protect the environment and curb runaway climate change.

Any and all potential solutions are welcome, and one of such is the larva of a common insect – Galleria mellonella, which is commonly known as the Greater Wax Moth.

A wax worm chewing its way through plastic. Image courtesy of Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe.

The discovery was made by accident by Federica Bertocchini, after noticing that plastic bags containing wax worm quickly became riddled with holes.

Further research has shown that wax worms can do damage to a plastic bag in less than an hour, and after 12 hours reduction in plastic mass becomes obvious to the naked eye.

Bertocchini and colleagues had also demonstrated that plastic is being not only ingested by the worms, but also processed internally and turned into ethylene glycol, a compound mainly used as a raw material in manufacturing polyester fibres and antifreeze formulations.

While plastic is certainly not a natural food stock for the worms, the reason they can digest it has to do with their ability to digest beeswax (wax moths lay their eggs inside beehives), which involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds.

“Wax is a polymer, a sort of ‘natural plastic,’ and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene,” explained Bertocchini.

Further research could reveal more details about the digestive process itself and eventually lead to a biotechnological solution to the management of polyethylene waste.

“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,” Bertocchini says.

The paper was published in the journal Current Biology.


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