Could caterpillars solve plastic polyethylene waste worldwide?

Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that the larvae of the honeycomb moth, which usually eats wax in beehives, can also  biodegrade plastic. Along with Federica Bertocchini, who develops her scientific work at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (IBBTEC), have discovered that the larvae of the animal can be productive in getting rid of the polymeric material.

The honeycomb moth (Galleria mellonella) is a lepidopteran insect that can be found anywhere in the world. It can reach the length of three centimeters in its larval phase. Also, they feed on honey and wax from beehives, where they also find the ideal temperature for their adequate development.

The scientist leading this study affirmed in their latest research published in the journal “Current Biology” that this worm is capable of biodegrading polyethylene, one of the most resistant plastic materials which is used to make shopping bags and food packaging, among other objects. “Polyethylene, in particular, is very resistant, so it is very difficult to biodegrade naturally", said the CSIC researcher, who works at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology in Cantabria, located in Santander, Spain.

The compositions of the wax and the polyethylene are quite similar, in fact, according to the study's researchers, this may be the reason why the worm has developed a mechanism to adequately consume the substance.  "We still do not know the details of how biodegrading occurs, but there is a possibility that it’s due to an enzyme naturally produced by the caterpillar. The next step is to detect, isolate, and produce it in vitro on an industrial scale. This way we can begin to eliminate this resistant material effectively, "says Bertocchini.

Nowadays, the processes of chemical biodegradation are extensively long and can last several months. Additionally, it requires the use of corrosive liquids such as nitric acid. It is the first time that a research team finds something in nature capable of consuming this material that has caused serious global problems in the last decades.

LatinAmerican Post | Manuela Pulido