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Plastic eating caterpillar discovered

The caterpillar of the greater wax moth is capable of breaking down polyethylene, the most common form of plastic. Researchers discovered this by accident when they put the caterpillars in a plastic bag. The results recently appeared in trade magazine Current Biology.

Every minute two million plastic bags are used throughout the world. Most of these bags are thrown away within 20 minutes and end up on a landfill or in the environment. The caterpillars, often used as fishing bait, turn polyethylene into ethylene glycol, a colour and odorless liquid that can be used as antifreeze. The holes started appearing 40 minutes after the researchers put one hundred worms in a bag. Twelve hours later 92 milligrams of polyethylene had been consumed.

That is significantly faster than any other organism that is somewhat capable of breaking down plastic, like certain bacteria and fungi. These organisms take around three to four months before dissolution becomes visible. It is still unclear whether the caterpillar digests the plastic itself or if certain substances in the animals intestinal flora are responsible.

The scientists think the caterpillars are capable of breaking down polyethylene because of their habitation in beehives and their natural diet of beeswax. The way these carbon chains are built is actually similar to the ‘spine’ of polyethylene. According to the researchers the plastic-eating caterpillars are not the solution to the plastic pollution. However, the surprising research results can provide ideas for future biotechnological applications.