Thursday, 23 November, 2017

Researchers discover caterpillars that can chew and breakdown plastic

Caterpillar found to eat shopping bags suggesting biodegradable solution to plastic pollution Researchers discover caterpillars that can chew and breakdown plastic
Ron Matthews | 27 April, 2017, 10:44

Humans use as many as a trillion plastic bags every year, with much of that plastic ultimately destined to spend centuries slowly biodegrading in a landfill.

Since plastic is considered as highly resistant to breaking down, the environment is in serious danger and its looks like nature itself might provide us with the best answer.

Turns out there is a type of plastic that can be easily biodegraded.

Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper and researcher at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, in Spain, noticed the worms had eaten holes in a plastic bag he was using to house the caterpillars after removing the pests from one of his hives.

"I went back to the room where I had left the worms and I found that they were everywhere".

It was only when the larvae, which were being transported in a plastic bag, chewed holes through it and escaped that they cottoned onto the possible pollution solution.

The team exposed about 100 wax worms to a typical plastic bag from a United Kingdom supermarket and found that holes started to appear after just 40 minutes.

To confirm that the plastic bag was digested by some enzymes produced by the wax worm rather than it biting through the plastic bag, scientists smashed some of the wax worms and smeared them on polyethylene bags. The "wax worms" turn into greater wax moth or honeycomb moth, which often eat honeycombs by breaking down the wax structure.

"Our aim is the characterization of the molecular mechanisms responsible for this biodegradation", says Bertocchini.

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The researchers showed that the wax worms were not only ingesting the plastic, they were also chemically transforming the polyethylene into ethylene glycol - a translucent alcohol. After 40 minutes, holes began to appear in the bag, and after 12 hours, the scientists observed a 92mg reduction in plastic mass.

The "wax worm", so-called because it infests bee hives and eats all the wax, also has a taste for polyethylene, the plastic used to make soda bottles, food containers, shopping bags and other stuff that keeps piling up.

Polyethylene, mostly in the form of packaging and shopping bags, represents 40 per cent of Europe's demand for plastic products. "We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms".

Paolo Bombelli, a biochemist at Cambridge who took part in the study, said the finding could lead to a solution to the plastic waste mounting up in waterways, oceans and landfills.

"There is a chemical transformation of the polymer - this is telling us it's something more than the mechanical action of the caterpillar munching", Paolo Bombelli of the University of Cambridge and an author of the study told IBTimes UK. "However", she adds, "we should not feel justified to dump polyethylene deliberately in our environment just because we now know how to bio-degrade it".

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