The caterpillar glutton plastic or the new biodegradation frontier

Apr 28, 2017 | written by:

And we found out that larvae have a taste for plastic. The discovery seems to be heralding a new era for the refuse disposal of this material (especially bags) that normally takes hundreds of years to decompile and comes from the Italian Federica Bertocchi and from her recently studio published on Current Biology. The protagonist: the wax moth larvae aka Galleria mellonella, known above all to be a fearsome pest of beehives and to be used as a bait by fishermen.

The research, co-ordinated by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology in Cantabria (Spain), happened by accident since Bertocchi normally works on biology of development, embryos’ kingdom, but in her leisure time she delights as a beekeeper amateur. And just as she wiped her beehives from beeswax’s larvae placing them in a plastic bag, she noticed that in only 40 minutes the bag was filled with small holes. Immediately a request was made to Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe, biochemists at the University of Cambridge, known during a research at the University College of London and with a knack for the biodegradation of pollutants, to carry out some laboratory experiments.

The sympathetic larva has already been renamed "caterpillar glutton plastic" for its particular tastes, and it starts to see a more relaxed and comfortable life: between eating bags all day and risking its neck as a fish food, certainly the first option is definitely preferred. But how does it go from beeswax to plastic? Wax is a rich complex of different molecules, but it has a bond similar to that which supports the robust molecular structure of polyethylene: a chain of carbon atoms on a loop. Thus, from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that the larva can nourish plastic. Now what's interesting is discovering the enzyme or bacterium that comes into function in the digestive tract of the worm to assimilate the plastic.

So in the future, hopefully not too far away, larvae will help us recycling bags, bottles and polyethylene shoppers with a large-scale reproduction with biotechnological methods of the chemical process. And yes, nature always knows how to surprise us.


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