In a striking new discovery scientists have found waxmoth larvae that are commonly bred to provide fish bait hold an atypical trait of feasting on a common plastic known as polyethylene.
Polyethylene, mostly in the form of packaging and shopping bags, represents 40 per cent of Europe’s demand for plastic products.
Since these objects are non-biodegradable the threat caused by them is more critical to the environment, especially for sea life.
Paolo Bombelli, a professor at Cambridge University and co-author of a study published in the journal 'Current Biology' said, "This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polythene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans".
The discovery was something of a happy accident at the home of the study’s lead author, Federica Bertocchini, a biologist at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain.
Bertocchini keeps beehives as a hobby.
According to the reports the researcher stated that “When I went to clean them for reuse in the spring, they were infested with (wax) worms”.
“So I put them in a bag. Then, after a while, I saw the bag was full of holes and these caterpillars were crawling all around my place.”
Startled by the caterpillar’s voracious appetite, Bertocchini and a team from Cambridge University decided to conduct experiments to find out just how much, and how quickly, the pests could consume environmentally harmful plastic.
To find out, the researchers set wax worms loose on a polyethylene film, watching holes appear after just 40 minutes. And when the researchers put roughly 100 wax moth larvae on a commercial shopping bag, they ate a total of 92 milligrams in about 12 hours.
How does the wax worm manage such a difficult feat, and have it with such incredible speed? The answer may lay in the worm’s habitat and eating habits.
Growing in bee colonies, the moth larvae feed on beeswax, a digestive process that scientists believe may be similar to breaking down polythene.
“Wax is a polymer, a sort of ‘natural plastic’, and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polythene”, Bertocchini suggested.
It remains unclear if a single enzyme or a combination of molecules are responsible for degrading plastic. But biologists hope to identify and reproduce the active agent artificially.
“Using million of caterpillars on top of plastic bags would not be feasible”, Bertocchini said.
At the point when humankind is facing serious environmental threats, the plastic degrading substance used by these wax worms if maufactured on large scale can take the form of an environmentally harmless liquid that could be used in plastic treatment facilities.