This caterpillar can eat plastic bags

This caterpillar can eat plastic bags

You've heard of clothes moths, but have you heard about the wax-worm?

Beekeepers have been acquainted with the larvae of the Galleria Mellonella moth for some time. The insect has been known to lay its eggs in hives where the larvae hatch and live off the surrounding beeswax. But a new study has found the caterpillar is not only able to eat wax but also break down polyethylene based plastics, such as those used in plastic shopping bags and water bottles. 

 Larva chewing a hole through a plastic bag.  Image: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe)

Larva chewing a hole through a plastic bag.
Image: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe)

As with many great scientific discoveries, the caterpillar's amazing capabilities were made by accident, when a researcher and amateur beekeeper noticed holes in the plastic bag she had been using to collect the caterpillars in. 

The study found that 100 caterpillars were able to munch away 92mg of plastic within 40 minutes. Even ground up, a caterpillar paste was able to degrade a plastic bag in a similar way, indicating chemicals within the caterpillar to be responsible for the break down. 

  Image: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe)

Image: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe)

The chemical processes of the caterpillar's digestive system have got scientists very excited at the prospect of tackling landfill and other plastic waste from a biotechnological perspective. Previous researchers have also found bacteria and fungi with similar plastic-eating capabilities, and this new discovery is yet another step closer to tackling the global plastic pollution problem with biotechnology.  

Future steps for researchers will involve identifying and isolating particular chemicals responsible for the caterpillar's plastic digestion, in order to produce them on a large industrial scale.

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