A Caterpillar So Hungry It Will Even Eat Plastic

This caterpillar is a what's called a wax worm, but the holes in this bag show they will eat plastic fi they can't get bee's wax. César Hernández/CSIC

It is perhaps surprising the capacity has not been discovered before. Galleria mellonella are widespread around the world and are increasingly used as laboratory models for studying microbial infections.

The bags are polyethylene, 80 million tonnes of which is produced each year, making up 40 percent of Europe's plastic consumption.

When plastic breaks down in the environment, it is usually into smaller pieces that are even more destructive, as they can more easily enter the food chain. However, the wax worms are breaking the chemical bonds in the polyethylene, converting it to harmless ethylene glycol.

"If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable," said Bombelli in a statement. Bee's wax, while digestible by a far wider range of living things, contains a lot of CH2-CH2 bonds, as does polyethylene, and it appears that whatever the worms evolved to break it down also works against the plastic.

The challenge will be to bring the wax worms, or their enzymes, into contact with the shopping bags. We already have options for recycling plastic that has been collected, sorted, and cleaned. Bags that have been released into the environment, or mixed up with other materials in landfill, are much harder to attack, but Bertocchini's discovery at least looks like a place to start.

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Close up of a wax worm and a bag it is ripping into. Paolo Bombelli

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