Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

How a Plastic-Eating Caterpillar Could Help Solve the World’s Waste Crisis

Science
These waxworm caterpillars have an appetite for plastic. USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Scientists are learning more about a caterpillar that is very hungry …. for plastics!


The plastic-munching abilities of the greater wax moth caterpillar were first discovered in 2017, when a scientist and amateur beekeeper put some of the insects, who also eat beeswax, into a plastic bag only to discover that they had eaten their way out. Now, researchers at the University of Brandon have discovered that the larval greater wax moths can survive solely on polyethylene — the type of plastic that makes grocery shopping bags.

"They are voracious feeders during these larval stages," lead study author and Brandon University associate biology professor Bryan Cassone told USA TODAY.

The research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B last Wednesday, looks at exactly how the caterpillars are able to effectively digest plastic, in hopes of learning from the process to develop a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. The answer? A symbiotic relationship between the caterpillars and bacteria living in their gut.

"We found that waxworm caterpillars are endowed with gut microbes that are essential in the plastic biodegradation process," study coauthor and Brandon University biology chair Christophe LeMoine told CNN. "This process seems reliant on a synergy between the caterpillars and their gut bacteria to accelerate polyethylene degradation."

The researchers found a species of the waxworms' gut bacteria that was able to survive on the plastic alone for a full year, but the bacteria and the caterpillars were most successful when working together. The bacteria alone took longer to break down the plastic, and the caterpillars also digested the plastic more slowly when given antibiotics, the university press release explained. On the other hand, when the caterpillars were fed only plastic, the bacteria in their gut increased.

The researchers found that the caterpillars themselves could survive eating plastic bags for one week, and that 60 of them could eat through about 30 square centimeters (approximately 4.65 square inches) of the stuff during that time, Phys.org reported. The byproduct of all this? An alcohol known as glycol.

"Worms that eat our plastic waste and turn it into alcohol sounds too good to be true. And in a way it is," Dr. Cassone said in the press release. "The problem of plastic pollution is too large to simply throw worms at. But if we can better understand how the bacteria works together with the worm and what kind of conditions cause it to flourish, perhaps this information can be used to design better tools to eliminate plastics and microplastics from our environment."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Refrigerated trucks function as temporary morgues at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal on May 06, 2020 in New York City. As of July, the states where COVID-19 cases are rising are mostly in the West and South. Justin Heiman / Getty Images

The official number of people in the U.S. who have lost their lives to the new coronavirus has now passed 130,000, according to tallies from The New York Times, Reuters and Johns Hopkins University.

Read More Show Less
A man walks on pink snow at the Presena glacier near Pellizzano, Italy on July 4, 2020. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

In a troubling sign for the future of the Italian Alps, the snow and ice in a glacier is turning pink due to the growth of snow-melting algae, according to scientists studying the pink ice phenomenon, as CNN reported.

Read More Show Less
Climate activist Greta Thunberg discusses EU plans to tackle the climate emergency with Parliament's environment committee on March 4, 2020. CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP

By Abdullahi Alim

The 2008 financial crisis spurred a number of youth movements including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. A decade later, this anger resurfaced in a new wave of global protests, from Hong Kong to Beirut to London, only this time driven by the children of the 2008 financial crisis.

Read More Show Less
A climate activist holds a victory sign in Washington, DC. after President Obama announced that he would reject the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal on November 6, 2015. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

The Supreme Court late Monday upheld a federal judge's rejection of a crucial permit for Keystone XL and blocked the Trump administration's attempt to greenlight construction of the 1,200-mile crude oil project, the third such blow to the fossil fuel industry in a day—coming just hours after the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the court-ordered shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Read More Show Less
A forest fire in Yakutsk in eastern Siberia on June 2, 2020. Yevgeny Sofroneyev / TASS via Getty Images

Once thought too frozen to burn, Siberia is now on fire and spewing carbon after enduring its warmest June ever, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
The Colima fir tree's distribution has been reduced to the area surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo

By Agustín del Castillo

For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area's avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Jeanette Cwienk

This summer's high street fashions have more in common than styles and colors. From the pink puff-sleeved dream going for just €19.99 ($22.52) at H&M, to Zara's elegant €12.95 ($14.63) halter-neck dress, clothing stores are alive with cheap organic cotton.

"Sustainable" collections with aspirational own-brand names like C&A's "Wear the change," Zara's "join life" or H&M's "CONSCIOUS" are offering cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience. Such, at least, is the message. But is it really that simple?

Read More Show Less