How tiny worms could solve the world’s plastic problem

Scientists in Italy may have discovered a small solution to a big problem: they’ve found a caterpillar that eats plastic bags and shits out antifreeze.

The author of a paper published today in Current Biology, Federica Bertocchini, discovered this by accident: An amateur beekeeper, she considered waxworms pests. She plucked several of them off of her beehives and put them in a plastic bag. When she left them for a few minutes, they managed to chew through the bag and escape.

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So waxworms — technically wax moth caterpillars — can not only chew through plastic, they can break it down into ethylene glycol.

For reference, it could take hundreds of years for the average plastic bag to break down because it’s made of polyethylene, which doesn’t register as food to most microorganisms. Ethylene glycol, on the other hand, breaks down in soil and water within a few weeks.

It’s not a perfect solution — ethylene glycol in large amounts is toxic. But a colony of wax worms living in a landfill might cut down on the plastic bags that would otherwise sit there for who knows how long.

via Popular Science


Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella
on Current Biology