Icky wax worms could offer solution biodegrading plastic bags

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But as a new study published in Current Biology shows, these caterpillars are not just capable of breaking down beeswax, they can also break down plastic-and that's probably not a coincidence.

In tests at Cambridge, 100 waxworms were let loose on plastic bag from a British supermarket, with holes appearing after just 40 minutes. Rather than dangling on the end of a hook and wondering what comes next, the grubs are set to join the war on plastic waste.

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 low-density polyethylene used in plastic bags can take about 100 years to decompose completely, and the most resistant polyethylene products can take up to 400 years to decompose, the researchers said.

Yeast or bacteria might be more efficient at breaking down the plastic than caterpillars on a large scale, but it's possible that caterpillars themselves could be used to break it down. The researchers showed that the wax worms were not only ingesting the plastic, they were also chemically transforming the polyethylene into ethylene glycol. "We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms", said Bombelli. The worms were temporarily kept in a typical plastic shopping bag that became riddled with holes.

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This led to a wonderful idea: What if these so-called pests could actually help break down polyethylene, a common and non-biodegradable plastic now clogging up landfills around the world? This insect has the audacity to lay its eggs inside bee hives, where they hatch and thrive on beeswax.

But in a chance discovery, a scientist and amateur beekeeper has found that waxworms have a taste for more than wax. Working with scientists at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, she found that the caterpillars weren't just chewing holes - they were eating the plastic and breaking it down into another compound.

But scientists may now have a natural solution to tackle the global problem. Given that plastic bags take a notoriously long time to break down, this discovery could have important implications for helping get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste in landfill sites and oceans, say the researchers.

"The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up". She saw that there were little holes in the plastic bag, and after she collected them back again, she observed them at work, making a meal out of their see-through jail cell.

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Over the past five years, she collaborated with Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom to follow up on those observations through laboratory experiments.

"Wax is a polymer, a sort of 'natural plastic, ' and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene", said Bertocchini.

It's likely that the caterpillars produce an enzyme that can degrade the plastic when they eat it, or when it rubs against them or their chrysalis.

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