Beekeeper's Surprise Find May Help Our Plastic Problem

Possible solution: hungry caterpillars
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 25, 2017 8:51 AM CDT
Caterpillar's Surprise Ability May Help Our Plastic Problem
A wax moth caterpillar snacks on plastic.   (Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli, and Chris Howe)

Many scientific discoveries can be attributed to a happy accident—the discovery of penicillin thanks to moldy petri dishes, for instance. Might our mounting plastic crisis be solved similarly? One scientist and amateur beekeper in Spain has discovered that the larvae of wax moths, which live on beeswax and thus frustrate bees and their keepers, appear to have quite the appetite for plastic, not to mention the highly unusual ability to digest it, reports the Guardian. As the scientist explains in the journal Current Biology, the grubs that she removed from one of her hives and then tossed in a plastic bag chewed their way out in minutes. These critters are often bred as fish bait, and the Times of London notes the irony: Worms that usually lead to the demise of fish may point toward a way of saving their habitat instead.

Scientists have previously discovered that certain bacteria and fungi can break down polyethylene in the lab, but the process takes a long time, measured in months, reports the Los Angeles Times. In a world where Americans alone generate 33 million tons of plastic a year, less than 10% of which we recycle, per the EPA, that's not going to cut it. The new study raises the possibility that scientists could unleash the worms on waste in the oceans and elsewhere, though more research is needed. For example, if the worms ate their way through the plastic simply to escape, that's one thing. "But if they’re munching it to use as an energy source, it’s a completely different ball game," says a Cambridge researcher. (This whale was found with 30 plastic bags in its stomach.)

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