Wax Worms That Have The Ability To Biodegrade Polyethylene Could Be A Solution For Waste Pollution

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Apr 26, 2017 02:49 AM EDT

The Galleria mellonella caterpillar was accidentally discovered in its capability of biodegrading polyethylene, a commonly used plastic. It’s the greater wax moth or honeycomb moth typically known as the wax worm.

According to Phys.org, one of the scientific team and an amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini, removed a group of wax worms from honeycombs in her hives. The caterpillars were placed in a typical plastic shopping bag that became perforated in just a short period.

Bertocchini introduced her findings to her colleagues Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge's Department of Biochemistry. She works at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC), Spain. The team then conducted a timely measured experiment on the caterpillars.

The scientists exposed almost 100 caterpillars to a plastic shopping bag from a UK supermarket. They observed that holes became visible in just 40 minutes, and a decrease in the plastic mass of 92mg after 12 hours.

The shopping bag's degradation rate by caterpillars is very rapid than other latest findings. Bacteria were found last year to biodegrade some plastics with a speed score of just 0.13mg per day.

"If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable," Paolo Bombelli, first author of the study published on Monday, April 24 in the journal Current Biology said. "This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans," he added.

Polyethylene is mainly used in packaging and there are trillion plastic bags used worldwide in a year. It accounts for a 40 percent demand for plastic products all over Europe and up to 38 percent of these materials are thrown away blocking landfill spots.

Plastic is highly difficult in decaying, and it remains in the Earth's environment without degrading for a long time. This problem is likely to be solved with the help of caterpillars that are competent in biodegrading plastic. However, the scientists still need to conduct further studies to distinguish precisely the chemistry behind.

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