In a chance discovery, a research team from Europe has learned that a common insect larva is capable of breaking down the plastic found in shopping bags and other polyethylene-based products. This trash-munching caterpillar could inspire scientists to develop a new chemical process to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste.
In experiments, the researchers exposed 100 caterpillars to a plastic polyethylene bag obtained at a UK supermarket. After just 40 minutes, holes began to appear in the bag, and after 12 hours the larvae had managed to reduce the amount of plastic by as much as 92 milligrams. That’s incredibly fast—even faster than the plastic-munching bacteria reported last year, which were capable of biodegrading plastic at a rate of 0.13 mg per day.
In subsequent tests, the researchers ground the caterpillars into a paste, smearing it onto the plastic. The bags degraded in a similar fashion, indicating that chemicals in the caterpillar’s body—likely in the gut—are responsible for the action. Naturally, this has the researchers excited, and they’ve already filed a patent on their discovery.
“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. “This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.”