Yes! Caterpillars can now be used to get rid of plastic pollution. A commercially bred caterpillar that eats beeswax and is commonly used as fishing bait – breaks down chemical bonds in the plastic, it transforms polyethylene into ethylene glycol in the salivary glands in its guts.
Researchers from University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom conducted this study by keeping around hundred wax worms in a plastic bag and observed it for 40 minutes when holes started to appear in the bag. After 12 hours around 92 mg of plastic mass was reduced from the bag.
“Wax is a polymer, a sort of natural plastic, and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene,” said CSIC’s Bertocchini, the study’s lead author.
To confirm if the result was due to chewing mechanism of the caterpillars, the researchers got similar results when they mashed up some of the wax worms and smeared them on the plastic bags. They found that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastics are actually broken by the wax worms. The degeneration of plastic bags actually happens at a very fast pace.
“If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable,” said Cambridge’s Paolo Bombelli, first author of the study published in the journal “Current Biology”.
Polyethylene is widely used in packaging, there is a huge demand for plastic worldwide and a huge amount of this plastic is discarded in landfills. This discovery can help to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.