Two years ago, a group of researchers came upon the tiny waxworm. At first, they thought nothing about it, until further research concluded how much of a hero they actually are.
The tiny waxworm can eat plastic, even polyethylene, a common non-biodegradable plastic that is usually the main cause of clogging in landfills and seas. After carefully studying the extent of this specie, scientists discovered how much this caterpillar’s gut bacteria (or microbiome) could help tackle the problem with plastic waste.
“We found that waxworm caterpillars are endowed with gut microbes that are essential in the plastic biodegradation process,” said Christophe LeMoine, an associate professor and chair of biology at Brandon University in Canada. “This process seems reliant on a synergy between the caterpillars and their gut bacteria to accelerate polyethylene degradation.”
Aside from the caterpillar, many other animals have a microbiome that helps in keeping humans healthy.
An amateur beekeeper in Spain in fact, accidentally discovered the caterpillar’s plastic-eating capabilities when she plucked the “pests” from the beehives and put them in a plastic bag. She later on saw that the worms ate little holes in the bag as they chewed through it.
The beekeeper, Federica Bertocchini, is also a scientist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria. She put together the study to see how the worms break down plastic and they found the wax worms eat the polyethylene plastic bags faster than any other methods. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Though this could be looked upon as an immediate solution to plastic pollution, LeMoine pointed out that more work is needed to be done to understand how the caterpillars and microbes work. One issue, he said, was how could they handle the toxic substance that the caterpillars excrete after eating plastic.
“Basically, the mircobiome and host work synergistically with one another for effective plastic metabolism. Rather than a single species of bacteria, it is most likely several species working together to facilitate this process,” LeMoine said.
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